NOW THAT THANKSGIVING IS OVER and we have enjoyed gathering with family and friends to give thanks for the people and things that really matter in this life, it is time to seriously indulge in that age old trip to the movies to catch up on everything before the awards shows are presented. I have not seen all the movies yet, so I will not cull my list down to a Top Ten List until later in December. However, I have been keeping track of some of the movies that I think are worth seeing and I now share that list with you. Some movies on this list will undoubtedly be nominated for awards on Critics’ Lists or at the Producers and Directors Guilds. Many have already been added to the Independent Spirit Awards nominations, and will most likely grace the lists for the Golden Globes and even the Oscars. I am dividing them into categories of Narrative Films (Parts I and II); Guilty Pleasures; Animation; and Documentaries (Parts I and II), but the films are being listed in a random order, not necessarily in order of preference. Hope to hear what’s on your list. Enjoy!—Chaz Ebert
A: NARRATIVE FILMS: BEST OF THE BEST
1. “A Star is Born”
Bradley Cooper’s successful reimagining of this Hollywood classic stars an engaging Lady Gaga as a singer whose rising career enters the stratosphere just as her lover, a music icon and struggling alcoholic played convincingly by Cooper, hits the skids. Surprisingly romantic and assured directorial debut, with great supporting characters played by Sam Elliott and Andrew Dice Clay.
Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar caliber film recreates from his imagination the Mexico City of the early 1970’s, juxtaposing the intimate story inspired by his family’s housekeeper (played by Yalitza Aparicio) and the political turmoil engulfing the nation. Beautifully shot in black and white.
3. “Cold War”
On the heels of his Oscar-winning masterwork, “Ida,” Polish auteur Pawel Pawlikowski brings us another sumptuous black-and-white portrait of mismatched characters, though this time around, they are lovers (played by Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot), and based on some biographical details from the lives of his parents. This was one of my favorite films at Cannes. And true to his previous works, the music in each scene is supplied organically from what is going on during that time period.
Another favorite film at this year’s Cannes Film Festival was Nadine Labaki’s staggering Lebanese drama about a 12-year-old boy who sues his parents for “divorce” after their desperate actions of neglect result in unthinkable tragedy. The performances by young Zain Al Rafeea and toddler Boluwatife Treasure Bankole are among the greatest by children in cinema.
5. “Black Panther“
Marvel’s latest box office phenomenon was also its most meaningful, with “Creed” director Ryan Coogler crafting another deeply moving blockbuster. His version of the fictional African nation of Wakanda broke new ground for representation in mainstream super-hero lore with Chadwick Boseman’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.-like hero clashing with Michael B. Jordan‘s multi-dimensional adversary embodying the spirit of Malcolm X. This was one of the best movies of the year.
6. “The Hate You Give” and “BlacKkKlansman“
Amandla Stenberg gives an amazing performance as a high school student whose life has to be lived one way in her African-American neighborhood, and another at her white prep school. Those divisions come crashing down when she witnesses her best friend killed by a policeman. But what adds more depth to this film is the family life director George Tillman shows us starting with the strong loving father played by Russell Hornsby and Regina Hall as the mother. The decisions made in this film have an unexpected complexity.
I paired Spike Lee‘s “BlackKkKlansman” with “Hate” not because they are related, but simply because its protagonist is a policeman. This true tale of a black policeman in Colorado (John David Washington) who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan with the help of a Jewish policeman (Adam Driver) and interacted with David Duke (Topher Grace), the Grand Wizard or Dragon or whatever he was, gives you a decidedly different take on things. Spike Lee brings the film full circle to Charlottesville.
7. “The Wife”
8. “First Reformed“
One of Roger’s most cherished writers, Paul Schrader, is receiving deserved critical acclaim for this haunting ode to the slow cinema of Robert Bresson, starring Ethan Hawke as a tormented priest descending into fanatacism.
9. “Ben is Back” and “Beautiful Boy”
Seeing Peter Hedges’ film made me think “Julia is Back,” as Julia Roberts gives such an intense and finely tuned performance as the mother of a son struggling with addiction, that I didn’t realize how much I had missed her on the screen until I saw her here. Lucas Hedges, in another topnotch performance, leaves you emotionally spent following the antics of a recovering addict who signs himself out of treatment to spend one holiday with his family. The film hammers home that addiction is a family disease, and the addict’s actions have consequences for the whole family.
Felix Van Gronengin’s “Beautiful Boy,” based on a book by David and Nic Sheff, follows Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet’s journey of a father’s frustrations in dealing with his son’s meth addiction over a longer period of time, but in an equally grueling manner. Both movies offer credible glimpses into the insanity of addiction and in the parent’s helplessness but tenacious refusal to give up on his/her offspring.
10. “Never Look Away”
Twelve years after winning the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award for his debut feature, “The Lives of Others,” Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck returns with a captivating epic about a young artist wrestling with ghosts from Germany’s Nazi-era past. The film is loosely based on the life of famous painter Gerhard Richter.
B. NARRATIVE FILMS: MORE MUST SEES
11. “The Front Runner“
Jason Reitman‘s fact-based drama about the 1988 presidential campaign of senator Gary Hart (played here by Hugh Jackman) and how it collapsed once the media reported on his alleged adultery is a timely meditation on the point in modern journalism when politics acquired its scandal-laden focus.
12. “First Man“
Damian Chazelle’s under-appreciated film about Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) provides viewers with a visceral account of what it must have felt like to travel to the moon in NASA technology circa 1969, and how the astronauts’ and their families (Claire Foy in a role quite different from Lisbeth Salander) were in it as a unit.
13. “Boy Erased“
Lucas Hedges is superb in Joel Edgerton‘s deeply moving adaptation of Garrard Conley‘s bestselling novel of a gay boy whose parents force him to undergo gay conversion therapy. It portrays a tightrope balance of the dehumanizing nature of conversion therapy without demonizing the characters. Strong supporting roles by Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe as his parents.
14. “If Beale Street Could Talk”
“Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins follows his Best Picture Oscar win with this stirring, quietly elegant adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel about a pregnant woman (KiKi Layne) striving to prove the innocence of her husband (Stephan James).
15. “Green Book“
Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen turn in endearing performances in Peter Farrelly’s movie based on a true story about the friendship that develops between a talented African-American musician, Don Shirley, while he is being driven through the south by a white bouncer. It plays like a racially reversed “Driving Miss Daisy,” with a dash of “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”
Chicago is the setting of Steve McQueen’s fourth feature (his first written with Gillian Flynn), a no-holds-barred, but slow simmering crime heist that also touches upon political shenanigans, economic inequality and women reclaiming their power. Kudos to the ensemble of woman power represented by Viola Davis, Michele Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Jackie Weaver and Cynthia Erivo;
17. “Eighth Grade“
Bo Burnham captures the essence of our modern anxieties in his empathetic film about the challenges faced by a young girl in her final week of junior high school. Elsie Fisher gives a dead-on portrayal of the awkardness and uncertainty of adolescence.
18. “The Favourite“
The ever-surprising Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos may have made his biggest crowd-pleaser to date with his latest audacious drama set in 18th Century England and populated by Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone and an Oscar-worthy Olivia Colman. The unexpected dance sequence in this film is not to be missed!
19. “A Quiet Place“
John Krasinski’s knockout suspense picture is extra-special because of how it utilizes deaf actress Millicent Simmonds and sign language. Simmonds and Emily Blunt deliver nuanced performances as a family trying to outwit fearsome creatures occupying a post-apocalyptic landscape. This is the first time in a long time where the action on the screen was so fraught that it commanded absolute silence from the audience. Bravo to you, Krasinski.
20. “Juliet, Naked“
Nick Hornsby’s books craft clueless guys and their dialogue like no one else, and Jesse Peretz’s adaptation of his novel is a splendid romantic comedy, featuring a triangle of flawed yet relatable characters played by Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke and in the trickiest role of them all, an engaging Chris O’Dowd.
C. GUILTY PLEASURES:
My guilty pleasure of 2018 is Fede Alvarez’s very entertaining adaptation of the fourth installment in Stieg Larsson’s “Dragon Tattoo” series. “The Queen” star Claire Foy does a complete turnaround and offers her indelible take on the electrifying heroine Lisbeth Salander. It doesn’t matter whether it all gels or not, the pseudo-psychological exploration of Salander’s pathology that turns her into a robotic action figure who saves women and children from evil-doers is good enough for me.
2. “Creed II“
My second guilty pleasure on this list would be Steven Caple Jr.’s spirited follow-up to Ryan Coogler’s rousing expansion of the “Rocky” franchise. Michael B. Jordan returns as the son of Rocky Balboa’s rival-turned friend, Apollo Creed, but this time he is paired with the son of his father’s boxing foe, Ivan Drago. Though it’s not as great as “Creed,” it still packs a solid punch. It’s amazing that Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” saga is still on the scene 40 years after its first premiere.
3. “Robin Hood”
Third on my list of guilty pleasures currently in theaters is Otto Bathurst’s energetic and entertaining new version of the Robin Hood legend, with Taron Edgerton as the titular rebel. He launches a war against England’s corrupt monarchy, including the ever dependable Ben Mendlesohn as the diabolical Sheriff of Nottingham. What makes this version fresh is that Robin Hood is under the tutelage of Jamie Foxx’s scene-stealing mentor, John, in a role that supplies ethnic and religious complexity. I can promise you that you have never seen a Robin Hood like this before, and in this version he is wearing a cool hoodie, and no tights.
I loved every meticulously crafted frame of Wes Anderson’s latest stop-motion marvel, where a Japanese boy goes in search of his ostracized canine companion. Wildly creative.
E. DOCUMENTARIES: PART I
There’s no question that Fred Rogers, the trailblazing television friend of countless children and the subject of Morgan Neville’s wonderful film, embodies the empathetic philosophy our world needs more than ever. Watching this documentary brought me back in touch with just how much of a visionary Mr. Rogers was about the human condition, and the fact that in the end, there is only love. He was a compassionate subversive wrapped in the disarming cotton candy of a children’s show.
Three cheers for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the multitudes of movie-goers that flocked to Julie Cohen‘s and Betsy West‘s stirring tribute to her extraordinary legacy. All hail to the Notorious RBG. Also worth seeing is Mimi Leder’s narrative film, “On The Basis of Sex,” about a distinct period of Justice Ginsburg’s life long before the Supreme Court. It stars Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer and Justin Theroux as lawyers trying to make case law outlawing discrimination based on gender.
3. “America to Me“
Steve James‘ sprawling exploration of the inequity plaguing one of Chicago’s suburb’s most progressive high schools schools, Oak Park -River Forest, aired in 10 parts on STARZ, and is as richly etched as any of his previous features.
4. “On Her Shoulders” “The Price of Free”
Alexandria Bombach tells the story of Nadia Murad, a 23-year-old courageous Yazidi woman who survives the physical, sexual and psychological assault of ISIS while fighting for the freedom of her people. She truly was carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders.
Another amazing documentary about one person’s fight for the rights of others is Derek Doneen’s “The Price of Free.” It was formerly called “Kailash” after the Indian crusader, Kailash Satyarthi, who leads a global movement to rescue children from forced work-slavery. His mission is to ensure that children have the rights to food, shelter, education and play. This film builds like a mystery.
This trifecta of documentaries effectively charts how we arrived at a Donald Trump presidency. James D. Stern interviews supporters of the president on the eve of the election, and wisely lets us in on his personal feelings about what he is witnessing. From another perspective, Errol Morris focuses his formidable lens on the inflammatory words of Steve Bannon. As for Michael Moore, his latest scathing look at corruption serves as a devastating follow-up to his 1989 breakthrough “Roger & Me,” as his hometown of Flint, Michigan once again proves to be a microcosm of middle class dissolution.
6. “Mr. SOUL!”
Melissa Haizlip’s prize-winning documentary illuminates the astonishing achievements of her uncle, Ellis Haizlip, the “Black Johnnie Carson,” and how his talk show “Soul!” brought newfound awareness to the Harlem Renaissance. Before Oprah, there was Mr. Soul. He hosted black intellectuals, dancers, poets, and activists on public television at a time during the 1960’s and 70’s when it wasn’t fashionable, and gains the unwanted attention of President Richard Nixon, who considers the show a threat to the nation.
7. “Amazing Grace“
Praise for producer Alan Elliott for making the completion and release of Sydney Pollack’s 1972 recording of Aretha Franklin’s live gospel album in the New Missionary Baptist church in Los Angeles possible. It features the iconic Reverend James Cleveland, Aretha’s father Rev C. L.Franklin, Gospel great Clara Ward, and glimpses in the audience of a baby-faced Mick Jagger. It is infused with the spirit of the choir led by Alexander Hamilton, and the church-goers sublime reactions.
8. “Minding the Gap“
“America to Me” segment director Bing Liu‘s achingly personal debut feature chronicles the lives of his skateboarding buddies in Rockford, as they come to terms with the pangs of growing up, domestic abuse and how to prepare for the future when the past has been rather aimless. Authentic and fresh.
9. “Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché”
Pamela B. Green’s documentary is a must-see about the first-ever female director, who made her first movie at age 23 in 1896. She was a contemporary of Edison and the Lumiere Brothers, but Alice Guy-Blaché’s role in filmmaking was written out of history. She was responsible for over 1,000 films, and started a studio in New Jersey. It is astonishing that her name is not known even at some film schools.
10. “Crime + Punishment“
The illegal quota practices in police departments are revealed by brave whistleblowers in the New York Police Department, courtesy of Stephen Maing’s essential film which won a major award at the Sundance Film Festival.
DOCUMENTARIES: PART II
The less you know about Tim Wardle’s art house smash following the lives of three tripletts who had no knowledge of each others’ existence until later in life, the better. The back story of the experiment that separates them may infuriate you.
12. “Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow”
Rory Kennedy’s breathtaking IMAX film screened at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington DC sheds light not only on NASA’s 60 year history and (her uncle) President Kennedy’s vision of a moonshot, but also explores the importance of our oceans, the earth’s ecological system and tells why Mars may be our next frontier.
13. “Dark Money“
To paraphrase the famous line from “Network,” you will be mad as hell while watching Kimberly Reed’s incendiary exposé on the role of untraceable corporate money in American politics.
“Touching the Void” Kevin Macdonald recalls the void left by Whitney Houston. We get to revisit performances that show why she is called one of the greatest singers of all time in this biography approved by her surviving family members. There is a surprising look at the loving relationship shared by Whitney and Bobby Brown, and of course the tragedy of the drug use that took her away all too soon.
Alan Hicks and Rashida Jones teamed up to direct the loving look at Jones’ legendary father, the musical force whose career has been defined by the breaking of boundaries. Quincy Jones‘ demons were influenced by his early years in Chicago and his relationship with his mother, but his prodigious talent helped make the careers of so many famous singers and musicians. He is a true American talent.
16. “Maria by Callas“
I was enthralled by Tom Volf’s film about the great Maria Callas, the Greek-American singer from New York, who recounts her life in her own words, thanks to brilliantly assembled writings and clips.
17. “Love, Gilda“
Gilda Radner’s time on this earth may have been cut short by cancer, but the laughter she left us with on “Saturday Night Live” belongs to the ages, as evidenced in Lisa Dapolito’s affectionate film.
18. “Kusama: Infinity”
Filmmaker Heather Lenz turns her camera on Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama and her involuntary journey toward becoming the most highly prized female artist in the twentieth century. What part does mental illness play in her obsession with dots and art. Also an eye-opening look at the art world and how a woman artist’s creativity is sometimes bypassed until it is mis-appropriated by a male artist.
19. “The Price of Everything“
In a year chockfull of memorable films about the contemporary art world, Nathaniel Kahn’s documentary is one of the best. How do you determine the value of art? Is the most expensive art the best? Who sets the value on what we value in the art world. Fascinating look at these questions, with surprise answers.
AND NOW, THE FULL LIST IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER…
“The Front Runner”
“The Girl in the Spider’s Web”
“If Beale Street Could Talk”
“Isle of Dogs”
“Never Look Away”
“A Quiet Place”
“A Star is Born”
“Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow”
“America to Me”
“Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché”
“Crime + Punishment”
“Maria by Callas”
“Minding the Gap”
“On Her Shoulders”
“The Price of Everything”
“The Price of Free”
“Three Identical Strangers”
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”