Here are the reviews I wrote this year with the criteria that they were available online or were at local movie theaters, although not necessarily under broad distribution nor widely distributed through move theaters. Of the 43 reviews, here are my favorites. Another difficult year to make my listicle. As in past years, 2018 was absolutely stunning. Both television and cinema have continued to produce phenomenal story-telling and intriguing characters.
The following list is not ranked, only grouped by genre. I could not limit my choices to only 10 or 20.
INDIES and FOREIGN CINEMA
1) “The Invisible Guest”–What You See Is Not What You Guess (October 26 review)
(Spanish: Contratiempo): a 2016 Spanish crime thriller that will leave the viewer spellbound. Adrián Doria, a successful business entrepreneur, husband and father, is knocked unconscious, and wakes up in a locked hotel room to find the dead body of Laura Vidal, his married lover. Charged with murder but wealthy enough to be out on bail, Adrian soon learns that his lawyer, Félix Leiva, has hired the renowned defense attorney, Virginia Goodman, to represent him. Goodman pulls no punches in the resulting cat-and-mouse game.
2) “The Devil’s Backbone”–Peter Pan meets “The Shape of Water” (August 26)
A visual metaphor illustrating how war entraps, just like insects in amber and fetuses in jars, this Spanish film The Devil’s Backbone (2001) exposes the horrors of war and fascism through the lens of fantasy.
3) “20 Feet from Stardom”–Stellar Performers (August 19)
The mainly female backup singers featured in 20 Feet From Stardom are all daughters of preachers, as was Aretha Franklin, who fine-tuned their extraordinary singing voices in the church choir while very, very young. Director Morgan Neville connects Gospel, Blues, and Soul to these roots of Rock and Roll.
4) “La Mante” –The Praying Mantis (July 24)
This must-see French suspense thriller focuses on an imprisoned female serial killer, recruited to help solve a string of copycat murders, but only if her son, Damien, now a policeman, works with her on the case. The mother is nicknamed “La Mante”, the praying mantis.
5) “An Inspector Calls” –Nothing Will Ever Be the Same (June 17)
The BBC mystery An Inspector Calls (2015), based upon the 1947 J.B. Priestley play by the same name, is a morality tale for our time. Set in 1912 Arthur Birling, a wealthy self-made industrialist, has hopes of a knighthood and implicit social elevation through the engagement of his daughter to an aristocrat. Inspector Goole (the superlative David Thewlis) brusquely arrives, announcing he is there to investigate the suicide of a young woman named Eva Smith. At first the Birling family claims not to know anything about her but Inspector Goole begins revealing that they do.
6) “RBG” –Truth to Power (May 21)
Regardless of your political tastes, the documentary RBG offers an insightful peek into the life and work of a lifelong advocate for equal rights for women and minorities. As one of three female Supreme Court justices serving on the nine-judge bench, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become a cultural icon and something of a “fan-girl” sensation.
7) “Black Sea” –The Darkness Beneath the Surface” (February 27)
While dejected and wondering what his future holds, Robinson, a deep-sea salvage captain, recently unemployed and divorced with a young son, has drinks with a fellow co-worker, Kurston, in similar circumstances. Soon the two friends assemble a misfit crew to go after the treasure (rumored to be worth millions in gold bullion) from a World War II U-boat sunken in the Black Sea.
PSYCHOLOGICAL, POLITICAL AND SOCIOLOGICAL
8) “Green Book”–Required Reading (December 5)
It’s 1962, you are African American and you don’t travel in the US without the Green Book, an unofficial domestic passport (for Jim Crow laws). The Green Book is an indispensable guide for African Americans looking for accommodations while traveling. (Similar guides existed for Jewish and gay travelers.)
9) “The Final Year”–The End of a Term (November 28)
The Final Year, Greg Barker’s HBO documentary, covers January 2016 to January 2017 of the Barack Obama administration . It is quietly devastating and demoralizing footage of the last twelve months of foreign statesmanship before the Trump administration.
10) “The Wife”–The Invisible Woman, or…Stand by My Man (October 6)
A raw unfolding of secrets, infidelity, resentment, self-sacrifice, delusion, and rage erupt from the couple’s souls and that of their son, who is reminded by his father that he is merely a shadow of his own greatness. The complexities of their relationships reveal a whirlwind of bliss and toxicity (not unlike Ingmar Bergman’s classic “Scenes from a Marriage”.)
“11) “BlacKkKlansman”–Part of the American Fabric? (September 3)
In 1979 Stallworth becomes the first black detective in Colorado Springs’s police department. The police chief warns Stallworth: “We’ve never had a black police officer. So you’ll be the Jackie Robinson of the Colorado Springs police department.”
12) “The Gift” –Nothing is Free (June 25)
Darkly unnerving, The Gift first conveys a vibe of horror, but then the narrative moves in the direction of “Fatal Attraction”, with a deft maneuvering of plot, character, style, and tone. No blood or gore, but a heart-pounding series of scenes without a stewed rabbit.
13) “The Internet’s Own Boy”–The Story of Aaron Swartz (April 16)
Chronicling the life and tragic death of computer wunderkind Aaron Swartz (1986-2013), The Internet’s Own Boy is a documentary into a life too brief and incredibly brilliant as we witness a young boy’s intellectual development as well as his emotionally opaque inner life. The testimony of those who deeply loved him and grieved over his untimely death at the age of 25 is sensitively and truthfully conveyed.
14) “Seeing Allred” –A Hero Before #MeToo (March 26)
A new portrait of the revolutionary Gloria Allred, the feminist lawyer who singlehandedly took on legal cases including the Equal Rights Amendment (which failed to pass in Congress), and Roe vs. Wade. What propelled Gloria Allred to become the woman she is–an intrepid fighter for women’s rights, the rights of minorities, and LGBT? That is the major theme of “Seeing Allred”.
15) “I Am Not Your Negro”–James Baldwin (February 4)
I Am Not Your Negro gives us a fuller understanding of the brilliant mind and soul of James Baldwin, a critical thinker, writer, and essayist, whose work is not as well-known as it should be. At the time of Baldwin’s death in 1987, he left behind thirty pages of an unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, interweaving his incisive and excoriating psychological analysis of race, national identity, and morality.
TV and ORIGINAL SERIES
16) “House of Cards”–A Different Shuffle (Final Season) (November 20)
Frank Underwood is dead, but we don’t know how. His widow, Claire Underwood is President and has inherited her dead husband’s enemies.Dealing with the aftermath of her husband’s death, and declaring that “the reign of the middle-aged white man is over”, Claire clashes with corporate moguls, the Russian prime minister, and her own vice president. Trying to forge her own path as President, Claire takes no prisoners and feels no regret.
17) “Ozark”–Season 2–“Dexter” Meets “Breaking Bad” (October 16) [Netflix]
In Ozark season 2 we wonder how it will end: Will the Byrdes – and their children – ever be able to feel safe, secure, and content? How will they continue as criminal minds laundering money for a Mexican drug cartel with roots in Chicago? This season is even better than the first in tackling the corrupting power of wealth and greed, human nature, and the ties that bind a family and define it.
18) “The Tunnel” (Seasons 2 and 3) (August 14) [Netflix]
British and French detective partners again intend to solve a heinous series of crimes. Twisted ideologies, revenge, spies, terrorism, “marriage for sale”, sex trafficking, the vulnerability of love and loss, and the insidious nature of high-tech equipment in the hands of malevolent actors all make digging into seasons two and three as spellbinding as the first season.
19) “Calibre”–A Bullet Through the Heart (August 5)
A friendship is tested with moral dilemmas existing at each plot twist. Vaughan has to deal with his future as a father (with his expectant wife almost due to deliver) and his drug-addled best friend Marcus. In its best moments, Calibre is part “Deliverance” and part “Dogville”. It attacks your nerves, ratcheting up the tension and suspense.
20) “Unforgotten”–The Power to Recall (June 11) [Hulu]
Unforgotten, like all good mysteries, creates encrusted layers of complex clues, red herrings, and surprises. There is no last-minute perpetrator inserted to fool the viewer. Nor is the culprit easy to guess in the first few minutes of watching. Characters are inserted in such a way that the viewer wonders where the interrelated scenes are going– a priest who helps the homeless, an older man losing patience with his wife’s descent into dementia, a woman tutoring students for their exams, and a man who obsesses over political power.
21) “The Terror”–A Chilling Northwest Passage Nightmare (May 13)
The Terror opens in 1846, with two crews–the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror on a tandem quest to open the treacherous Northwest Passage for the British Empire and its trade mission. Faced with limited resources, an unruly crew, and fear of an unknown killing spirit, the Tuunbaq (borrowed from Inuit mythology), both ships are sailing towards the brink of extinction, isolated by the frozen tundra, and trapped at the end of the earth.
22) “Seven Seconds”–Black Lives Matter? (April 20)
In the opening scene a hit-and-run of an African-American teenager by a white Jersey City rookie cop is covered up by three other members of the police force.The story is harrowing and complicated, with several subplots that are not resolved. But the seminal theme is clear: does a hit-and-run crime against a young black fifteen-year-old go unpunished, no matter what the evidence or the commitment of the prosecutor?
Note: Almost half of the films and series reviewed here are older than 2018 but were watched this past year.