Brian's Top 25 of 2018 (11-25)

When determining the merits of a year in film, whether or not the year was “good”, I’m looking for one of two things: true greatness or depth. (I’d like both, but I’ll settle for one.) Looking back over 2018 and the hundred-and-ten-or-so films I saw this year, I’m not sure I can pinpoint true greatness; I’m talking, like, iconic, masterpiece-level movies. But depth? Yeah, 2018 had some real depth to it. I gave out A’s (A+ to A- on my very scientific, official rating scale) to 45 movies (and I’m sure I’ll add some more to that total as I finish out the rest of my list), a fairly high number compared to years past, and there are plenty of movies I quite enjoyed, that I’ll watch many times over in the future, which ultimately didn’t sniff my top 25 (Game Night, Ready Player One, and Solo to name a few). On the podcast this week, we’ll each go over our top ten and worst ten of the year but as a precursor, here’s a look at the best of 2018 that was under consideration or just missed a top-ten finish.

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25. Creed II
This movie had so much to live up to in my eyes as Creed is a bona fide perfect movie and one that I watch constantly, always through a storm of tears. II put up a noble effort, became a worthy follow-up, and fully passed the torch from Rocky Balboa to Adonis Creed. Will be interesting to see where this franchise goes moving forward.

24. American Animals
A very inventive, fun movie with a sobering sense of morality as its backbone. I had no knowledge of this story going in and spent the bulk of the film’s runtime trying to figure out if the interviews with the supposed real-life criminals were actually real interviews or if this was all a figment of director Bart Layton’s imagination. Layton has a great sense of the audience’s intrigue, I think, and pulls the strings beautifully throughout. Animals also features a couple of great performances, that of Evan Peters in particular.

23. First Man
This was one of my most anticipated films of the year and yet, for all its beauty and technical brilliance, it left me a bit cold. In this, I think Damien Chazelle succeeded in making an outstanding film but perhaps came up short in connecting with the audience, something he did so well in both Whiplash and La La Land. Gosling is a marvel, though, and the moon landing sequence is truly breathtaking.

22. Ralph Breaks the Internet
Like Creed II, this movie pales a bit in comparison to its predecessor but overall, I found Ralph to be a blast to watch and expertly crafted. Its conceit and the meta-ness of its story work, I think, quite well and Disney has come quite a long way in creating a thriving franchise with what could have been a one-off character.

21. Bad Times at the El Royale
As the president of the “Cabin in the Woods Is Fine But Not Nearly As Good As Y’all Make It Out To Be” coalition for reason, I am of the opinion that Drew Goddard will one day make a perfect film. Bad Times isn’t quite that, straying just a tad here and there from the path of perfection, but it is darn good and features some of the best performances of the year (Cynthia Erivo and Jeff Bridges in particular). Plus, the Chris Hemsworth dance scene still haunts me but sort of in a good way?  

20. Paddington 2
The first movie I saw in 2018, it was all too easy to overlook Paddington 2 as the year wound down. But, upon rewatch, I was reminded of its sheer delightfulness and how unbelievably enjoyable these movies are. I didn’t know I needed a grumpy Brendan Gleeson teaming up with Paddington in order for my dreams to come true but now I do and they have and I am very happy.

19. The Rider
The winner of the Gotham Independent Spirit award for Best Picture, The Rider came out of nowhere for me and left me a teary-eyed mess. Chloe Zaho’s film is basically a documentary with a script in place, seemingly, only to give her novice actors a shove in the right direction. It is equal parts touching and gut-wrenching and you’re not sure until the final frames which side of that equation will win out.

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18. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Buster Scruggs is equal parts hilarious, dark, weird, triumphant, and sobering. So, what I’m saying is, “This is a Coen Brothers’ movie.” Of the six Western-themed vignettes within Scruggs, five are outstanding with the closing chapter serving as the only outlier, but frankly, I could’ve gone for another half-dozen or so chapters without any trouble and hope the Coens return to this type of filmmaking again in the future.

17. Isle of Dogs
I had Isle in my top ten for the bulk of the year but confess I enjoyed it more the first time around than the second, the opposite of my experience with most Wes Anderson films. Still, I love the style and find this to be one of the funniest movies of the year, maybe THE funniest. Better still are the well-defined, relatable characters, quite a feat considering most of them are stop-motion dogs.

16. Leave No Trace
A small, quiet, brilliant film featuring two outstanding performances in the form of Ben Foster and newcomer Thomasin McKenzie. Debra Granik has a remarkable eye for talent (Winter’s Bone was Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout film right before her Hunger Games casting) but even more, an eye for story. Leave No Trace is an ode to a simpler form of life and the people who would choose it if only society would let them and Granik brings that home with aplomb.

15. Ant-Man and the Wasp
2018 was one of the better years for superhero movies (even as we approach the brink of superhero fatigue) and this movie was a big part of that overarching success. I think this was a HUGE step in turning this branch of the MCU into its own, self-sustaining limb, and provided some of the biggest laughs and purely enjoyable sequences of the year. Because I live with a five-year-old who wants to be Black Panther when he grows up, I have seen that movie many more times but if it were up to me, I might put this film at the very top of the MCU in terms of rewatchability.

14. The Old Man & the Gun
I’ll have more on Robert Redford himself in my favorite performances piece later this week so, without stealing too much from my future self, I’ll just say that Old Man is quite literally written specifically for Redford and it shows. David Lowery has rapidly became one of my very, VERY favorite filmmakers and Old Man did nothing but reaffirm his versatile brilliance in my mind. Perhaps the most charming movie of the year, if nothing else.

13. Deadpool 2
The combination of 2016’s Deadpool and 2017’s Logan have completely upended the world of superhero movies and Deadpool 2 builds upon that (in some cases quite literally) very well. Deadpool was excellent in its own right and I know I, along with other fans of the movie, worried what the sequel might look like, especially after original director Tim Miller parted ways with the franchise. As it turns out, it is NEVER a bad idea to add Josh Brolin to your movie (unless your movie is Jonah Hex *ziiiinnnngggg*) and this sequel actually turned out better than its predecessor in my mind.

12. Mary Poppins Returns
I went all over the place in anticipation for this one, back and forth between expected greatness and expected corporate blandness. Ultimately, the former won out and I couldn’t have been happier with this finished product. This wasn’t one of my favorite movies as a child or one that I’ve revisited numerous times as an adult but within ten minutes of the opening the credits, I was overwhelmed by how much I wanted/needed Mary Poppins in my life; I genuinely had no idea that connection existed within my soul. Returns is an utter delight and a beautiful reminder of the classic Disney magic that is often overlooked in a swath of lightsabers and Vibranium (both things that I also love, by the way). And did I mention that Emily Blunt is perfect and delightful and I love her? Well, I will in my next piece.

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11. Blindspotting
I S-T-R-U-G-G-L-E-D with leaving Blindspotting out of my top ten and I still don’t feel good about it. This movie came and went with little-to-no fanfare (I’m not sure I ever even saw a trailer) which is a real travesty given how outstanding the performances are and the significance of its message and themes. Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal proved to be one of the truly great on-screen pairings of the year and I’m still thinking about the film over a month after my viewing. I expect we will hear much, much more from writer-director Carlos Lopez Estrada in the near future.

The Bardigan Awards

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Written by Richard Bardon IV, no matter what the byline says.

Disclaimer: While many of these books didn’t come out in 2018, I tried to pay special attention and award books that are current either in release or prescience to 2018 in whatever means I see fit. Deal with it.

Literary Fiction (High-Brow): The Waterworks - E.L. Doctorow
Runner Up: None

I didn’t read a ton of novels this year, and the ones I did were mostly disappointing; however, Mr. Doctorow never ceases to amaze me with his eye for really smart and captivating historical fiction. This book has a great mystery along with a super creepy build up to the reveal. Doctorow remains among the most underrated of modern American novelists.

Airport Fiction (Low-Brow): The Hellfire Club - Jake Tapper
Runner Up: None

This is not the sort of book I normally read, as I’m not a big pulpy Mystery/Thriller reader, but the subject matter and characters here (McCarthy-Era DC) were too tempting not to pick up and I enjoyed this read immensely. I need to read more of this style of political thriller – this was too much fun.

Essay/Short Form: The Rub of Time - Martin Amis
Runner Up: The End of the End of the Earth - Jonathan Franzen

Amis remains the author I’ve read the most of and his essays/reviews are my favorite incarnation of his style. He is the best book reviewer I’ve ever read and this modern collection of his magazine/journal works are, like Amis, equal-parts hilarious, ruthless, and intelligent.

I haven’t read much of Franzen, but I really enjoyed this collection (I tend to start with a novelist’s non-fiction/essay work to decide if I like their style before diving into the long fiction). Surprisingly, I found some of the essays on birdwatching to be quite moving and I have a new respect for the hobby. I look forward to reading a lot more Franzen in the future.

Humor: Hits & Misses - Simon Rich
Runner Up: Conference Room, Five Minutes - Shea Serrano

As long as there is a Simon Rich book out in a given year, particularly comedic short stories, it will win this category. There is simply no one funnier on the page in the world. Every sentence of this perfect little book is laugh out loud genius.

I mean, I love Shea and I love The Office. This had to get mentioned here.

History: Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power - Steve Coll
Runner Up: Kissinger Volume 1: 1923-1968 - Niall Ferguson

Private Empire approaches this history with the thesis that Exxon is essentially a private state operating within the United States, meaning that the foreign policy, defense, and economic expertise of Exxon are not unlike an actual nation-state. Coll does an excellent job articulating this as well as detailing all the various eras and projects of ExxonMobil in the 20th and 21st centuries. I came out of this book with the realization that Rex Tillerson, the ex-CEO of ExxonMobil and – at the time of reading – current Secretary of State, was more than qualified for his government position. I may have had my disagreements with Tillerson politically; however, anyone (including me before reading this book) that thinks the ex-CEO of a company like Exxon isn’t qualified, shows a lack of understanding of how multinational organizations like ExxonMobil truly work.

There may not be any human in the 20th century involved in more prominent issues than Mr. Kissinger. For better or worse, the world will remember him and while Ferguson’s book is often more sympathetic than other work on Kissinger, it’s an incredibly accessed and researched biography that truly gives the reader a sense of the man, his intentions, and his impact on the world-at-large.

Classical/Philosophy: Meditations - Marcus Aurelius
Runner Up: None

I try to read something like this every year and the stoics like Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca are always the most calming and influential on my own particular outlook on life.

Journalistic Non-Fiction: Billion Dollar Whale - Bradley Hope & Tom Wright
Runner Up: None

One of the more outrageous, baffling, and fun reads of 2018. The Jho Low saga is incredible and the ensuing investigation will certainly be interesting.

Biography: Robert Kennedy: A Life - Evan Thomas
Runner Up: The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels - Jon Meacham

I read a few RFK bios this year for whatever reason, but Evan Thomas’ (who also wrote the masterful Being Nixon) book is incredibly well researched and written, especially regarding RFK’s early years.

Meacham’s biography (and ensuing eulogy) of George HW Bush has really placed him among some of the great historians of our time, and this book – which is a collection of smaller histories of America overcoming tough times – continues his hot streak.

Business: Bad Blood - John Carreyrou
Runner Up: Getting Naked - Patrick Lencioni

Bad Blood is a hot book this year for a reason: it’s a meticulously sourced and researched book about a business failing with a lot of big names involved (Kissinger! Shultz! Holmes!) happening in what seems like real-time. The book reminds me a lot of Smartest Guys in the Room in the sense of its immediacy and sense of context. A fantastic read.

Getting Naked is something I’d never read, it’s a business fable about consulting. My next door neighbor, a consultant, recommended it and I thought I’d branch out a bit (a theme this year). I really enjoyed this book and found a lot of the lessons in it useful in both my professional and personal life.

Finance: Black Edge - Sheelah Kolhatkar
Runner Up: The Billionaire’s Apprentice - Anita Raghavan

Black Edge was my favorite book this year. I’m not much of a finance nerd, but this book opened up a new world of histories on these hedge funds and the personalities therein. The investigation of SAC is captivating but as is the portrait of the lead protagonist/antagonist, Steve Cohen. If you’re remotely interested in finance/business in 2018, I highly recommend this fantastic detective story.

The Billionaire’s Apprentice is another hedge fund investigation, this time into Galleon/McKinsey with a great sub-narrative of the Indian-American elite in the US. Both of these books are A+ and I can’t wait to read more long-form from both of these incredible writers.

Political (Domestic): What it Takes - Richard Ben Cramer
Runner Up: The Red and the Blue - Steve Kornacki

I finally did it! It took about 2 months of my reading time, but I read What it Takes, the MASTERPIECE of electoral narratives. *Stefon voice* This book has EVERYTHING: Bush! Dole! Biden! Hart! and is written in the most sarcastic and knowing voice that was surely enormously influential. This would be a great audiobook – due to all the snarky asides – but it hasn’t been produced. If you have a taste for this stuff, this is the granddaddy of them all (enjoy all 1100 pages!).

Kornacki affords himself well with this compelling narrative about 1990s politics and his thesis seems to be spot on with its influence on modern politics. Come for the stories about Newt Gingrich, stay for the high-minded analysis.

Political (Foreign Policy): War on Peace - Ronan Farrow
Runner Up: Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China - Evan Osnos

Farrow is one of those people I’d really like to hate, but books like this make it hard. This is a VERY smart book about modern diplomacy from someone who has not only studied it, but also lived it. It’s a bit politically motivated (Farrow, admittedly, worked in the Obama Admin and certainly has his favorites therein), but Farrow also provides years of context to support the arguments he makes. The tribute to Richard Holbrooke is touching and informative.

Osnos on Asia is always a must read in the New Yorker, and this long-form version taught me a lot about modern China (though this was published in 2014). China was one of the subjects I vowed to learn more about this year and this was a fabulous macro and micro narrative that really aided that quest.

Economics: Capitalism Without Capital - Stian Westlake & Jonathan Haskel
Runner Up: The Third Revolution - Elizabeth Economy

Capitalism without Capital was recommended to me by my close, personal friend Bill Gates. This book does a great job of explaining and prescribing the modern economy. It’s a dry book, but its thesis is clean and well-supported. I really enjoyed this and it is, again, not something I’d normally pick up.

The Third Revolution (and yes, this is really the author’s name) is another – this time, more current – attempt to learn more about China. Economy is a fellow at the council of foreign relations and this book does an excellent job of explaining Xi Jinping thought, its influence on China and the world writ-large.

Science/Technology: World Without Mind - Franklin Foer
Runner Up: Enlightenment Now - Steven Pinker

World Without Mind was a hot book last year, and has only become more important with the investigations into large tech firms. While this book doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, writers that think like Foer does here continuously will lead – one hopes – to society living more at peace with the import tech has on all of our lives.

Steven Pinker is an excellent writer and psychology professor and this book certainly will cheer you up in tough times, while is optimism is well-supported statistically, it’s still hard for your brain to process.

Sports: Tiger Woods - Armen Keteyian & Jeff Benedict
Runner Up: Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times - Mark Leibovich

Tiger Woods isn’t the best book I read this year, but it’s certainly among the most fun. The book delivers a complete look at Tiger’s life (one we’ve never had until this point), a catalog of his glory (always fun), and – of course – all the gossip-y details you’d want from a book about Tiger Woods. I was in Valencia, Spain on the beach in May and ran into another American reading the book. We bonded for about 30 minutes discussing all the juicy tidbits there in and this will always have the most fun (and exotic) conversation about books I’ve had in my life.

Leibovich is one of my favorite political writers (This Town is a masterpiece of the genre) and watching him turn his eye to something like the NFL (as a proposed respite from politics; however, we all know how that turned out) is a true joy to read.

Food on Film

EDITOR’S NOTE: I love Thanksgiving. Food, family and friends, football… I love the holiday season in general but there’s less pressure and stress surrounding Thanksgiving than Christmas and to me, it’s a great jumping off point for the next few weeks. But, as we all know, the best part of Thanksgiving is the food. With that in mind, I asked our good friend and frequent contributor Megan Spell to put together a list of food-related movies to help get your holiday off to a perfect start. -Brian

As we approach the hungriest of holidays, I have put together a guide of movies to gorge yourself to.

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Ratatouille

Ratatouille has got to be one of the most underrated Pixar movies. It has everything you could want: gratuitous food scenes, Parisian backdrops, and of course, Pixar-level emotional pulls. Sometimes I think to myself “who on earth greenlit this plot, no one wants to see rodents in a kitchen.” But then I watch the scene where the rats go through the dishwasher and come out all fluffy, and I’m in again.

Chef

I am convinced a sandwich has never looked better than the ones heavily featured in Chef. Chef, for me, is comfort food. Not only are there countless mouthwatering meals being made, the movie is just a slow build of joy. I want to eat everything and go everywhere with this family as Jon Favreau’s adopted and completely grown-up daughter. I challenge you to be in a bad mood after Chef. Impossible.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

David Gelb is my favorite food documentarian, and this is his best work. It is thoughtful, intense, informative, and of course, the food is beautifully shot. Equally a study of humanity as well as the art of sushi, it is a delight to watch a master at work. If this is up your alley, there are a few seasons of “A Chefs Table” on Netflix you can continue with. 

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The 100 Foot Journey

There is a scene early in “The 100 Foot Journey”, where the main character’s family van breaks down, and they are stranded in the French countryside. They are taken in by a young woman who offers them an appetizer board that I think about nearly weekly. This movie contrasts two different cuisines while showcasing some very clearly indulgent ingredients with a side of wanderlust as well.

The Trip

English comics Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s 3-part film series is extraordinary in their simplicity. In a near mockumentary style, the actors play fictionalized versions of themselves as they traipse across countries, staying and eating at five-star resorts. Come for the Michelin star meals and stay for the comedy.

Any Nancy Meyers Movie

Less of a food recommendation, more of a kitchen one. Nancy is the Queen of Culinary Interior Design, to the point where the main plot in It’s Complicated is a kitchen renovation. Personal favorites are The Parent Trap and Something’s Gotta Give. All I want in life is to be standing at an oversized granite island and offer someone “leftover coq au vin or pancakes”.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

From the opening credits, Willy Wonka delivers shot after shot of luxurious chocolate production, and only doubles down from there on Wonka’s fantastical creations. I watch this anytime it is on TV, but it also makes for excellent Thanksgiving evening viewing. You will most likely be full by the time you make it to this one, but there is always room for dessert.

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Megan Spell is a friend of the show and frequent contributor. You can hear her film reviews on several Mad About Movies episodes, including The Post, Crazy Rich Asians, and Bad Times at the El Royale. Find more of Megan’s written work at meganspell.com and check out her podcast, On the Download.