When it comes to the best movies of the year, there’s one key point to remember: There’s no such thing.
I think it was the late film critic Gene Siskel who said the Oscars and award season in general were pretexts for studio executives to pretend they admire the art and science of great filmmaking . . . as opposed to just being in it for the money the way they are for the other 11 months of the year.
One way of defining the year’s “best” movies is, they are the movies nobody sees. Oh, sure, there are lots of “Titanic” exceptions to this rule, but still . . . When you read some critics’ best lists, sprinkled with obscure productions from Romania or Zambia, it feels like they’re looking over each other’s shoulders, not wanting to be exposed as the one who doesn’t “get it.” Their lists are worlds away from the superheroes and faraway galaxies that rule each weekend at megaplexes across the U.S.
Online purveyors Netflix and Amazon along with cable TV networks have replaced old-fashioned movie studios, even though many of their proudest creations are never intended to be seen on big screens in actual theaters. Now they’re called “content providers.” It’s challenging to define what a “movie” even is anymore.
Awards season is when movies aren’t supposed to be about having fun — they’ve got to hurt a little, holding up mirrors from one country to the next, illuminating universal truths that make us all human.
Despite reservations about claiming to know what’s “best” in all this, I still get excited when awards season rolls around. It’s an opportunity to renew my membership in the Hawaii Film Critics Society . . . and to return to my old stomping grounds for this one column each year. It’s a throwback to a time when being a movie reviewer could pass for an actual profession.
Even with so many new ways of viewing movies, including watching them on a screen in the palm of your hand, I don’t see nearly as many as I used to. I used to believe movies were the mythology of the modern world. Now it’s hard to get past the product placement, or the sense that marketing has replaced storytelling in the grand scheme of things.
Nonetheless, it is still possible — and enjoyable — to come up with my list. And there are “Maui Connections” galore, since the list features wonderful work by artists including Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B. Jordan, Angela Bassett, Viola Davis, Adam Driver, Bryan Cranston and Colin Farrell, all of whom have made gracious appearances at the Maui Film Festival in recent years.
So here are my 10 favorites for 2018, listed alphabetically:
• “A Star Is Born” — Lady Gaga dazzles in her debut as a movie star under the assured direction of her singing co-star Bradley Cooper.
• “Black Panther” — The colors, the sounds and the soul of Africa inform Ryan Coogler’s expansive direction, heralding the mighty duel between Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan to become the screen’s first black superhero.
• “First Man” — Ryan Gosling and director Damien Chazelle add vulnerable ambiguity to the more familiar portrait of steely astronaut Neil Armstrong, who left more than his footprints on the moon.
• “Green Book” — Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali make beautiful music together as a black concert pianist and his strong-arm New Joisey driver sharing a Cadillac ride through the segregated South in the early ’60s.
• “Isle of Dogs” — It’s impossible to tell the difference between whimsy and wisdom in Wes Anderson’s animated tribute to man’s best friend, set on a surreal Japanese island with wall-to-wall screen icons providing the voices.
• “Roma” — Director Alfonso Cuaron’s otherworldly cinematography is the real star of this inspired, Fellini-esque, black-and-white remembrance of his family’s heroic maid during his boyhood in turbulent Mexico City.
• “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” — The Coen Brothers’ homage to the VistaVision Westerns of our youth would be an ironic masterpiece of life, death, big skies and big country if they hadn’t blown it in the last act.
• “The Old Man and the Gun” — Fifty years later, the Sundance Kid is still as charming as outlaws get in this graceful modern Western featuring Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek in their never-ending primes.
• “Widows” — It falls to Viola Davis and her crew of women with scores to settle to take on everything corrupt in Chicago, beginning with her no-good husband Liam Neeson in this satisfying thriller directed by Steve McQueen.
And now, back to real life, wishing you all a happy new year, lots better than the last one.
• Rick Chatenever, award-winning columnist and former entertainment and features editor of The Maui News, is a freelance journalist and documentary scriptwriter/producer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.