Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
We had an embarrassment of riches at the cineplex this year. So much so, it was almost impossible to keep up with movies, as theater owners had to quickly turn their spaces over due to an overabundance of independent films and mainstream releases. And at the end of the year, thanks to the advent of streaming services, many of you can catch up with what I consider to be the best of the best.
I’ve hyperlinked my full reviews (where possible) for easier access to my long-form gushing over these fantastic offerings.
18. PICK OF THE LITTER: What could feel more rewarding than seeing people in desperate need of reclaiming their active lifestyles get exactly that when they receive a guide dog? Directors Don Hardy and Dana Nachman’s documentary chronicling a litter of yellow labs training intensively to become guide dogs for the blind had me weeping before the opening title card. It’s fascinating to see the process they go through, and how each of these pups (who are as much characters as their human handlers) winds up making a difference in their humans’ lives. Not only does this speak to the power of pet companionship, but also to the human spirit. It’s an absolutely loveable, thoroughly enjoyable and gratifying watch.
17. DESTROYER: Though director Karyn Kusama’s gripping cop-drama utilizes a cinematic pet peeve of mine (one I’d spoil if I revealed it), it’s cloaked differently enough where it’s not a gimmick and plays perfectly into the mystery of the odyssey-esque narrative. Kidman, in what’s probably her most “brave” (read: ugly and physically battered) role to date, plays a grizzled undercover detective on a revenge-fueled path attempting to make peace with a past misfortune. The filmmakers take genre convention and add layers through complex character construction and deconstruction, exploring every facet of our heroine’s psychosis.
16. WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR: In the years since Fred Rogers’ death, many of us often wonder what it would be like to have him around to help us make sense of this rapidly changing, crazy world. Lucky for us, his legacy lives on in his television program. Director Morgan Neville eloquently captures the making of that show in this documentary on the iconic, lovable national treasure. The important lessons Rogers taught his viewers about compassion, respect and kindness summon tears to our eyes in retrospect. We desperately need more empathy in this world – and this film puts it out into the zeitgeist to inspire generations to come.
15. SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE: Directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman’s feature is the best superhero movie this year – animated or otherwise. It’s truly remarkable. This new cinematic iteration of the character is inspiring (with its stated sentiments that “anyone can wear the mask”), but also indelible and intelligent. They created a world that feels immersive in its character design and aesthetic appeal. The characters’ emotional drive remains at the forefront of the action. Daniel Pemberton’s original score (which I wrote about here) plays to that narrative facet, but also assigns a musical identity to each character. Plus, it’s legitimately funny in its irreverence. While I’m “here” for sad-sack divorcee Peter Parker, it’s Miles Morales that makes me want to re-enter the Spider-Verse over and over again.
14. TULLY: 2018 was the year frustrated mothers got their cinematic anthems (HEREDITARY and BIRD BOX included) – and for me, director Jason Reitman’s sounded the loudest alarms. Screenwriter Diablo Cody has written a defiant statement on society and the female identity through the lens of motherhood. Charlize Theron’s extraordinarily moving performance (one that makes you laugh and cry) as a mother of three at her wits’ end will make mothers feel less alone in the world, but also encourage their friends and companions to reach out to help. It hits like a punch in the gut.
13. EIGHTH GRADE: Writer-director Bo Burnham magnificently captured all the highly charged feelings of a young girl (played impeccably by newcomer Elsie Fisher) caught in the uncertainty and neurosis of adolescence with staggering amounts of wit, charm and compassionate heart. This indie spoke to me since I once was a young girl not too dissimilar from our heroine (minus the technology). Through the lens of the female protagonist, Burnham makes it easy to relate to the universal awkwardness of that age, transitioning from junior high to high school. There’s also an all-timer of a comforting father-daughter talk.
12. FIRST MAN: Director Damien Chazelle’s feature about astronaut Neil Armstrong’s quest to land on the moon stands in stark contrast to the filmmaker’s peppy, award-winning musical LA LA LAND. This is a drama drenched in grief and angst. However, hope-filled accomplishments can come from personal devastation. Sorrow surrounds our protagonist. By the time Armstrong steps foot into the Apollo capsule in 1969, the country’s primary proponent of the space program (JFK) has been assassinated, several of his colleagues have died in action pushing the envelope, and worst of all his young daughter has passed away from cancer. Hope is dying all around this man tasked with carrying it to the moon and back. It’s a profound concept on which Josh Singer bases this heroic figure’s drive. Coupled with a masterfully controlled, introspective performance by Ryan Gosling, the sound design and Justin Hurwitz’s score aids in placing the audience in the psyche of our hero’s torment and determination. It’s a film you’ll undoubtedly regret not seeing in the theater.
11. ANNIHILATION: Director Alex Garland made an absolutely haunting mind-bender that still hasn’t left me. A lot has been said of the show-stopping special effects (particularly the murderous scare bear and iridescent gloss of “The Shimmer”), but its most special quality is how complex these female characters are in design. A few have compared this to PREDATOR, in that the characters are picked off one by one. However, Garland goes deeper into these ladies’ mindsets and gives them deaths that make their life mean something greater. He floats heady concepts about self-abnegation, suicide versus self-destruction, self-immolation and conscientiously objecting. I haven’t been able to shake Tessa Thompson’s skilled performance – one that made me cry. There’s a beautiful aesthetic to Rob Hardy’s cinematography and Mark Digby’s production design, to the sound design teams’ disquieting, spooky stillness, and to Geoff Barrow and Ben Salsibury’s swampland score. There are innumerable layers of profundity here – like a mille crepe cake of existentialism and symbolism.
10. CUSTODY: Writer-director Xavier Legrand made the best family drama-driven horror film of 2018 – and unfortunately one people slept on. This small French indie wasn’t as widely accessible as studio offerings (like A QUIET PLACE), but packs just as big as a wallop of nightmarish scares. Originally conceptualized as a trilogy of short films, his feature expands on the groundwork laid in his Oscar-nominated short film, JUST BEFORE LOSING EVERYTHING. This perfectly performed picture portrays a family rendered powerless in the face of domestic violence. They never ask for our sympathy, especially when it comes to the self-inflicted travails of the abuser, but rather our empathy when it comes to their circumstances. Even with its nods to KRAMER VS. KRAMER, THE SHINING and NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, Legrand’s subtle homage takes on an identity of its own, haunting us long after the credits roll.
9. LEAVE NO TRACE: There were quite a few father-daughter films out this year, but co-writer/ director Debra Granik’s left the greatest footprint on my heart. She, along with adapting screenwriter Anne Rosellini, has captured an authentic relationship between a PTSD-stricken vet and his intelligent teen daughter with such intimacy and intricacy. The push-pull of the struggle is a fully realized portrait created by Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie.
8. GAME NIGHT: This world is far too stressed out and we are desperate for a good laugh. Thankfully for everyone, 2018 marked the comeback of “the comedy” movie. And the first out of the gate and the best of the bunch is this ridiculously hilarious film from directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein. Not only did they make an aesthetically arresting comedy (who knew you could have style and substance in a studio comedy?!), they, along with screenwriter Mark Perez, pepper the picture with indelible characters, genuinely funny dialogue and a cadre of fantastic comedic actors. It also houses the best line delivery in a film this year: “Oh no, he died!” Everyone here made it a night to remember – one you’ll be eager to repeat.
7. BLACKkKLANSMAN: There’s an absurdist flair to director Spike Lee’s film about a black man who infiltrated the Klu Klux Klan. It’s a powder keg of a true story that’s so completely outrageous, it almost can’t be believed. You’ll find yourself laughing at the audacity of the situations Ron Stallworth gets into and cheering his accomplishments. The end is what really sent me, as the lessons gleaned from Stallworth’s experience defeating hatred and bigotry kicks everyone right in the gut when they see it filtered through what’s happening in our world today. I sobbed. It’s a necessary message. Plus John David Washington is a revelation.
6. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT: I saw this one in IMAX twice and both times I was so drawn in I almost fell off my chair. Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie and star Tom Cruise could just keep making these films for the rest of their careers and it would probably still be a satiating creative venture, as they consistently find impressive new ways into the characters’ psyches and how to stage gripping stunt work. Not only that, it’s clear the team behind the camera also brought their A-games. Production and costume design, cinematography, score and sound design also earn top marks. This is flawless craftsmanship.
5. THE RIDER: There’s not one false note in the entirety of writer-director Chloé Zhao’s pristine picture about a rodeo cowboy recently sidelined due to a life-altering injury. It’s a tender, deftly-drawn portrait – one that could be a close cousin to THE WRESTLER. She infuses visual poetry and symbolism into the imagery. Every frame is bursting with emotion courtesy of Brady Jandreau’s deeply felt performance.
4. SHOPLIFTERS: The emotional thrust of director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film doesn’t hit like a wallop until the major reveal in the third act. Then it’s all tear-shedding and chest-clutching. Perhaps that’s because he takes ample time to ingratiate this ragtag band of hustlers to the audience. The auteur further explores reoccurring thematic content found in his previous works, only here, he digs into deeper layers of what it means to be family. Coupled with a subtle, bravura performance by Sakura Andô, this refined drama is sure to boost more than just your heart. It’ll steal your soul.
3. ROMA: While Alfonso Cuarón’s feature is shot in black and white, it bursts with all the colors of the emotional rainbow. The personal story based on his own warm memories of his family’s housekeeper is deep affecting, engaging and powerful. Cuaron captures the mundanity of life in a way that’s transfixing and beguiling, but he also portrays these characters’ universally-felt pains and pleasures as visceral and impressive. There are so many indelible, incredibly potent moments that sear into your soul. Cleo’s agency is at the forefront of this narrative – and it makes for a masterpiece.
2. YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE: When is a noir hitman story not like a noir hitman story? When it’s directed by Lynne Ramsay and stars Joaquin Phoenix. She crafts a knock-out crime drama that makes the character’s angst and introspection the focal point, not necessarily the explicit nature of the brutality he inflicts on his victims. Her adaption of Jonathan Ames’ novel takes audiences to places they don’t normally see in films of this ilk. In order to make her commentary on violence clear, she’ll cut around the blood, opting to turn the spotlight on the scenery after the hammer blows when the consequences seep in. She and Phoenix leave a lot of intricacies up to the audience to decipher. There’s not a millisecond wasted here, as each and every frame is packed with nuance. Jonny Greenwood’s original score, along with the sound design, helps to immerse us in the character’s tortured psyche. This is a soul-bruising work of genius.
1.PADDINGTON 2: Director Paul King and screenwriter/ co-star Simon Farnaby made a perfect sequel with this film. It’s a warm comfort blanket in dark times. I’ve watched this film the most out of any film this year and I cry every time hearing the last line. I still can’t even talk about the ending without getting tears in my eyes. With sweet sentiments woven into the fabric about the ripple effects of kindness, and a surprisingly sly, politically subversive message about the positive impact an immigrant can have on the community, King and company have crafted a love letter to cinema.