Before this year, it felt as if the film industry was in a creative lull. The Academy Awards in February proved incredibly predictable and white-washed, with films such as “Darkest Hour,” “The Post” and “Shape of Water” overshadowing the seemingly few complex and fresh films that draped the silver screen.
Diversity, not just in the races represented on the silver screen, has been at the forefront of the film industry this year.
And though 2016 gave us “Moonlight” and 2017 brought “Get Out” into the spotlight, it’s been a while since the film landscape has been decorated with as many politically and socially relevant films as the ones that came forward in 2018. This year, the catalog of heavy-hitting films garnering critical acclaim tackles weighty and significant topics that demand the public’s attention — essential topics that are oftentimes brushed aside.
Diversity, not just in the races represented on the silver screen, has been at the forefront of the film industry this year. Drug addiction, alcoholism, racial profiling in the justice system and the lack of Asian representation in the media are just some of the themes present in this year’s standout films. And what’s more is that, in a time when the rights of women, LGBTQ+ communities and immigrants are being rolled back, filmmakers, and the entertainment industry as a whole, are taking up arms — and cameras — to fight back.
While we can only hope that these crucial films tackling brutal and evocative stories get the recognition they deserve in the upcoming awards season, they are seen and appreciated here at The Daily Californian.
— Maisy Menzies
Best Motion Picture
Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” is the perfect combination of drama, comedy, and “oh shit” reality checks, and the best film to come out in 2018. Based on a true story, the film follows the first African American cop in 1970s Colorado Springs in infiltrating the Klu Klux Klan, both in his town and at a national level.
While dealing with very serious issues and drawing eerie parallels to the present day, the film has a way of keeping its audience laughing through a dichotomous feeling of a welcome buildup and a release of tension. Lee’s mixture of violence and love somehow come together to form an urgent call to pay attention; this is an important message.
The film’s cast are completely in sync with one another, the chemistry and joy palpable, the costumes spectacularly 70s and the message clear –– in this time of nearly overwhelming political turmoil, a little humor and a lot of action go a long way. There is no film more timely, more jarring, or more significant, than “BlacKkKlansman” this year.
— Sydney Rodosevich
Runner-up: “Beautiful Boy”
Even a fistful of concession-stand napkins cannot begin to dry the tears of this film’s viewers. Directed by Belgian filmmaker Felix van Groeningen, “Beautiful Boy” highlights the core heartbreak and pain of drug addiction for addicts and their loved ones alike. The film is an adaptation of the memoirs of father-son duo Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet) and David Sheff (Steve Carell). This story of a young man’s life put in jeopardy because of methamphetamines is both a heartbreaking story and a beautifully shot portrayal of pain. In a time when narcotics addiction is a serious crisis, this portrayal is more important than ever.
— Skylar De Paul
Winner: Timothée Chalamet, “Beautiful Boy”
“Beautiful Boy” is, more than anything, a character study, and thus Timothée Chalamet’s performance as Nic Sheff is essential to the overall film. Chalamet is terrifyingly comfortable in the baggy coat and oily hair of this desperate, spiraling teen trying to escape the cycle of addiction. Where David Sheff’s written words describe his son as having empty eyes and a hollow essence, Chalamet translates these punishing and poignant details into his body movement and facial expressions.
Throughout the story, Nic is haunted by the demons that pressure him to use drugs. With scattered flinches and heartbroken grimaces, Chalamet’s chemistry with those demons is both palpable and impressive. And the dynamic he maintains with his father David (Steve Carell) is equally impressive. His sour-candy reactions to his father’s advice melt into his despairing, muffled reaches for a return to innocence in the shelter of David’s arms. In Chalamet’s hands, emotions and actions that should mix like oil and water fluidly pulse through the screen.
This is the power of the character Chalamet occupies. With his careful, respectful and powerfully haunted portrayal of Nic, Chalamet highlights an often unseen aspect of the addict’s struggle.
— Maisy Menzies
Runner-up: Bradley Cooper, “A Star is Born”
Barring the fact that Bradley Cooper directed “A Star is Born” using Jackson Maine’s gruff Arizonian accent — barring even the fact that Cooper supports Ally’s pop music in real life, even though Maine is far from supportive in the film — Cooper is pretty good in “A Star is Born.” While the film is more likely Lady Gaga’s star-making machine, Cooper’s intensive vocal training and emotive breakdowns demonstrate a level of passion often missing from the male leads of romance films. While he might not have won first place, Cooper’s performance alone is worth bearing witness to the emotional whiplash of “A Star is Born” again — just to get another look at him.
— Caroline Smith
Winner: Lady Gaga, “A Star is Born”
“A Star is Born” would be nothing without its star.
In her role as Ally, a struggling singer who is set on a meteoric rise to fame thanks to her rock-star boyfriend Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), Lady Gaga imbues all of her scenes with the same heart-wrenching sincerity. Throughout the film, the audience watches Ally attempt to keep her earnest spirit and her love for Jackson intact as she is thrown into the world of the music industry, reconciling her private life with a new, uneasy awareness of her own celebrity — a tug-of-war Gaga herself is surely familiar with.
But nothing, not even scenes that showcase her incandescent chemistry with Cooper, can beat the moments when Gaga sings. The final scene of the film, wherein Gaga tearfully serenades the audience with the ballad “I’ll Never Love Again,” is the most sorrowful point of the film; Ally’s raw pain can be heard in every note. Audiences are used to seeing Gaga dressed up — in everything from meat dresses to sparkly costumes — but here she’s dressed down, giving a deeply personal and revelatory performance that won’t soon be forgotten.
— Grace Orriss
Runner-up: Keira Knightley, “Colette”
There’s a burgeoning demand in Hollywood for only queer actors to play queer parts. There’s also a semi-countermovement that consists of some queer women saying, “yes, except for Cate Blanchett.” Keira Knightley falls somewhere in the middle. Yes, she “plays gay” convincingly in “Colette,” but that’s not why she deserves to be considered this year’s best actress: “Playing gay” shouldn’t be seen as a burden for straight actors. Instead, Knightley deserves this award because of the nuances of her performance. Knightley’s subtle, same-gender, lustful glances in turn-of-the-century France are what sell her depiction. These moments feel like snowflakes. In the blink of an eye, they melt away and Knightley moves on — marking her performance one of the year’s best.
— Caroline Smith
Best Supporting Actor
Winner: Michael B. Jordan, “Black Panther”
Marvel Cinematic Universe films aren’t just notorious for endless sequels and end-credits sneak peeks; they’re also notorious for one-dimensional, poorly written villains. But Michael B. Jordan is the exception to this rule. “Black Panther” presented audiences with a rich antagonist that was at turns vicious and sympathetic, imbued by Jordan’s performance with a depth that rivaled even that of the film’s stoic protagonist.
Though born in Wakanda, Erik Killmonger was orphaned at a young age and grew up in the violence of present-day America. Jordan brilliantly illuminates Killmonger’s pain to the audience in what is perhaps the film’s best scene. Killmonger visits the Ancestral Plane and speaks to his father, but the windows of his Oakland apartment lie between him and the beautiful purple sky — what is so accessible to T’Challa is, for Killmonger, just out of reach. He’s a man caught between two worlds.
It is Jordan’s complex portrayal of Killmonger’s suffering that compels audiences to sympathize with him. Even as he inflicts atrocities on others, the fury on Jordan’s face is undercut by the pain swimming in his eyes. It’s a pain that would cause any audience to wonder if Killmonger just might be right after all.
— Grace Orriss
Runner-up: Adam Driver, “BlacKkKlansman”
Adam Driver’s role as Flip Zimmerman in “BlacKkKlansman” was in every sense dynamic. Flip is a Jewish police detective helping his fellow Black officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) to infiltrate the Klu Klux Klan.
In this role, Driver successfully navigates the sensitive complexity of his character’s situation.In an environment that sees his Jewish race as parasitic, surrounded by people who are openly anti-Semitic, he is forced to confront this discrimination while still having certain privileges as a white male. The beautiful intricacy of this well-crafted character is executed brilliantly in Driver’s hands.
— Anoushka Agrawal
Best Supporting Actress
Winner: Awkwafina, “Crazy Rich Asians”
“Crazy Rich Asians” was one of the biggest blockbusters of 2018, and Awkwafina delivered a performance that practically stole the show. The Queens-born actress played Goh Peik Lin, an old friend of the main character, Rachel. However, rather than performing from the sidelines, Awkwafina stands out in her role. In director Jon M. Chu’s words, Awkwafina is far from “the same old sidekick” — she’s “someone who can pop it, who feels confident and different.”
Peik Lin is an eccentric free spirit and a major comic relief throughout the film — for example, she wears a collection of various silk pajamas and pulls cocktail dresses out of the trunk of her sports car. However, it’s Awkwafina’s hilarious personality that shines through to fully create the character. From crashing Rachel’s millionaire boyfriend’s family dinner party to helping style couture outfits, Awkwafina steals the scenes that she appears in with her animated behavior and snarky punchlines. With a notable Queens accent and a lively presence to match, Awkwafina delivers these moments with a lovable energy.
“Crazy Rich Asians” in itself was a milestone for Asian representation in the media, and Awkwafina’s performance showed just how original and refreshing Asian representation can be. Her quirkiness and confidence add an additional level of enjoyment to the film, and her consistently on-point sense of humor makes for an unforgettable viewing experience.
— Salem Sulaiman
Runner-up: Regina King, “If Beale Street Could Talk”
As Sharon Rivers, the steadfast, caring mother of protagonist Tish (KiKi Layne) in Barry Jenkins’s “If Beale Street Could Talk,” veteran actress Regina King demonstrates an astonishing level of softness and groundedness when defending her family.
Throughout the film, King ensures that Sharon comes across as an admirable, yet realistic character, as her mature, stern decision-making skills are juxtaposed against the naivete and romanticism of the film’s lead couple. By embodying Sharon’s love for her daughter and vigilant pursuit of justice, King is responsible for fueling some of “Beale Street’s” most potent, powerful scenes.
— Anagha Komaragiri
Winner: Spike Lee, “BlacKkKlansman”
It’s something of a travesty that Spike Lee has never won an Academy Award, unless you count the honorary one that he received in 2015. But with “BlacKkKlansman,” Lee might finally have Oscar gold in his hands — and for good reason. It’s a testament to Lee’s direction that “BlacKkKlansman” functions in a number of effective ways; the film is a buddy cop action flick, a dark comedy and even a reclamation of cinema itself from the racist roots of D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation.”
Most significantly, Lee’s direction transcends topicality and the entire film pulses with a pressing urgency. Lee makes it painfully clear that Donald Trump is David Duke’s dream come true, ending the film with footage of the 2017 white supremacist riot in Charlottesville and the killing of Heather Heyer. It’s a movie that’s incendiary and polemical — and necessarily so.
For a year when white Academy voters are bound to pat themselves on the back for nominating “Green Book” (a movie about race that’s as progressive as…. (well, it’s not), consider the Daily Californian’s selection of Lee and “BlacKkKlansman” a preemptive corrective measure, in addition to well-earned recognition for a film that is truly one of the year’s best.
— Harrison Tunggal
Runner-up: Ryan Coogler, “Black Panther”
It’s been nothing short of incredible to see Ryan Coogler’s career soar to new heights with the critical and commercial success of “Black Panther.” With the 18th and arguably best Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, Coogler synthesizes the Oakland-centric, Black Lives Matter ethos of “Fruitvale Station” with the blockbuster filmmaking of “Creed” to deliver a dialectic about the Black experience on a scale hitherto unseen. Too often, indie directors prove themselves to be capable filmmakers but lose perspective once they’re confronted with a nine-figure budget. Coogler is the rare filmmaker who not only maintains, but elaborates, on his personal ethos throughout his three films — the true mark of a great director.
— Harrison Tunggal
Best Ensemble Cast
Winner: The Cast of “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again”
“Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” is the film equivalent to winning in the final round on “Wheel of Fortune” after already securing $40,000 — you would’ve been fine with just the first helping of spoils, but boy, you’re sure happy that the gift kept on giving.
Whoever decided to put Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan and Stellan Skarsgard in a room together and told them to simply have at it deserves their own movie. Accompanied by their counterparts — Jeremy Irvine, Josh Dylan and Hugh Skinner, in the younger versions of the same roles — and dancing alongside the likes of Christine Baranski, Cher, Julie Walters, Amanda Seyfried, Lily James and (spoiler alert) Meryl Streep, these actors have an easy time embodying entertainment on-screen. It’s a rare feat for an ensemble of this size to have no weak links (well, unless you count Brosnan’s vocals). The cast blends together perfectly; with each tender moment or comedic quip, the audience can sense the affection that the actors have for each other. For an ensemble cast to function so seamlessly, especially one featuring several big names, each cast member has to know when to share the spotlight and when to embrace individual time to shine, an often tricky balance that our “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” stars have on lock.
— Shannon O’Hara
Runner-up: The Cast of “Black Panther”
Chadwick Boseman’s regal T’Challa may be the centerpiece of “Black Panther,” but none of his heroics would be possible without the stellar range of supporting players that surround him. From spunky genius Shuri (Letitia Wright) to stoic warrior Okoye (Danai Gurira) to standout villain Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), every character contributes meaningfully to T’Challa’s journey. Buoyed by uniformly excellent performances, the characters of “Black Panther” populate Wakanda with an abundance of charisma, depth and pathos not often found in superhero films.
— Grace Orriss
Winner: Boots Riley, “Sorry to Bother You”
Boots Riley’s new film “Sorry to Bother You” follows Oakland-born Cassius Greene (Lakeith Stanfield) as he grapples with his Black identity in a capitalist world that sees white culture and white voices as a symbol of wealth. As a telemarketer, Cassius uses his “white voice” to climb the ladder of success at his company, compromising his loyalty and integrity for monetary gain, and ultimately discovering horrifying social realities within his industry as well as the outside world.
Riley writes about the rich and clashing Oakland community, currently at the center of a gentrification crises, in a humorous yet stinging manner. The viewer is flirtatiously tempted to laugh at cheeky dialogue — but with every giggle, we are uncomfortably confronted by the fact that we are perhaps part of the problem the film pokes fun at. In this, Riley creates a realm that allows us to reflect on our social footprint and cringe at white culture while having a good time.
“Sorry to Bother You” is filled with suspenseful, frantically thrilling energy that leaves audiences on the edge of their seat, terrified of what great villain lurks around the corner. What is incredibly impressive is that what we are so afraid to see jump out and scare us is not a man or a monster, but society itself. It is the exceptional dialogue, the chemistry between the characters and the film’s absurd yet poignant landscape that drives the horror of this comedy home.
— Maisy Menzies
Runner-up: Ari Aster, “Hereditary”
Writer and director Ari Aster’s screenplay for “Hereditary” is an achievement in subtlety. Clues are quietly woven into the mysterious and deeply unsettling narrative in a way that heightens tension, all while leaving viewers unable to understand their own apprehension. The dialogue elegantly fuels vulnerable family conversations in a way that is both disturbing and realistic. Admittedly, it lacks perfectly well-paced character development — Annie, after all, essentially explains the entirety of her character in a series of monologues (albeit well-delivered). Nevertheless, “Hereditary” is a more than welcome addition to the horror genre, and it certainly has its screenplay to thank for that.
— Shannon O’Hara
Best Foreign Film
Director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest film rose to the top of a particularly stacked lineup at the Cannes Film Festival — including Spike Lee’s stunning “BlacKkKlansman,” Lee Chang-dong’s icy mystery-drama “Burning” and Paweł Pawlikowski’s epic period romance “Cold War.” Needless to say, the Palme d’Or-winning “Shoplifters” comes with quite the pedigree.
The film follows the Shibata family, a tightly knit unit that doesn’t let living on the fringes of Japanese society tarnish its members’ love for each other. But their lives are thrown for a loop when they take in a young girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), who was abused by her parents.
In “Shoplifters,” Kore-eda picks up the thematic throughlines threaded throughout his previous filmography, weaving them into a profoundly emotional tapestry about the families we choose and the ones we’re born into. Though it sounds trite, Kore-eda is one of the few filmmakers working today who effectively taps into what it means to be human. Following in the footsteps of previous works such as “Nobody Knows,” “Like Father, Like Son” and “After the Storm,” “Shoplifters” knows just which emotional buttons to push. Ultimately, the film is bound to steal, and very likely break, any viewer’s heart with a deftness and delicacy that is Kore-eda’s trademark. To watch “Shoplifters” is to put yourself through an emotional ringer. We can’t recommend it highly enough.
— Harrison Tunggal
In “Capernaum,” a 12-year-old boy living in the most underdeveloped part of Lebanon takes his parents to trial for giving him life in a world filled with pain.
It’s a striking concept, and one that director Nadine Labaki executes with elegance and grace — so much so that the film’s showing at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival won it a 15-minute standing ovation. To make the film’s success even more impressive, Labaki employs a cast of almost entirely nonprofessional actors to bring its point home. Overall, the film is a stunning, heart-wrenching look at surviving even in the bleakest of conditions and the moments of grace that carry us through.
— Ryan Tuozzolo
Filled with endearing archival material and created through exceptional filmmaking, “RBG” portrayed what much of America already believed: Ruth Bader Ginsburg is just as much a pop-culture icon as she is a champion of liberal activism. The film chronicles the life of the second woman ever appointed to the Supreme Court, showing viewers the development of both her career and personal life.
Between shots of Ginsburg doing pushups and interactions with her witty late husband, directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West give viewers a window into Ginsburg’s personality. Ginsburg’s sober and level-headed disposition shines through as a contrast to her scathing presence on paper, and it offers a humanizing view of the justice’s life apart from her work as a justice.
The real merit of the film, however, is the focus on Ginsburg’s career. With glimpses into her successful Supreme Court cases supplemented by the inclusion of audio tapes from cases she fought before her appointment, the film highlights Ginsburg’s tireless fight for equality. Interviews with colleagues and footage of panel discussions give an even deeper account of Ginsburg’s prolific career.
“RBG” is a tribute to one of the most formidable legal figures in modern history, and it accomplishes this successfully through an inspiring and endearing look into Ginsburg’s life.
— Salem Sulaiman
Runner-up: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
While this summer saw a spate of excellent documentaries such as “Minding the Gap” and “Three Identical Strangers” audiences flocked to Morgan Neville’s Fred Rogers film, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” The latter earned $22 million at the box office, becoming the highest-grossing biographical documentary of all time. It’s understandable why. The film champions empathy and common decency in a time when such values are increasingly obscured by Donald Trump’s administration’s vitriol. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” gives us the space to feel optimistic about the human condition again and to shed a tear or two (OK, maybe a whole puddle of them) in a much-needed cathartic release.
— Harrison Tunggal
Best Animated Feature
Winner: “The Incredibles 2”
Disney-Pixar’s “The Incredibles” was a landmark film in many of our childhoods. It offered viewers superhero characters that were endearingly human and developed a storyline that was simultaneously engaging and lovable. After an 11-year wait, its sequel, “Incredibles 2,” matches the original in both quality and enjoyment.
Director Brad Bird satisfies the public’s nostalgia with a continued tale of superheroes trying to live normal lives while fighting the urge to save the world. Although much time has passed, the film picks up right where the original left off: the Parr family of “supers” are in the midst of battling another villain — one that gets them banned by law enforcement from any further crime-fighting. The tale that ensues is funny, joyful and at times dramatic. The movie perfectly balances a serious undercurrent with a playful tone, as the family tries to manage their powers and protect their city, providing the audience with many laughs and allowing us to reminisce on the old storyline.
“The Incredibles 2” is an impeccable combination of nostalgia and novelty. It maintains the lovable personalities and pristine animation style of the first film while adding a plethora of interesting characters — Voyd, Reflux and Portal, to name a few — and engaging storylines. The film undoubtedly meets the high bar set by its predecessor and will be remembered as a thoroughly entertaining continuation of an iconic franchise.
— Salem Sulaiman
Runner-up: “Isle of Dogs”
For enthusiasts of the endearing stop-motion animation and overall charm of “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” Wes Anderson’s latest creation is an easy success. Set in Megasaki, Japan, “Isle of Dogs” follows the journey of a young boy, Atari (Koyu Rankin), who is trying to recover his lost dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber), after all canines have been exiled to “Trash Island.” Anderson has sagely selected voice actors with Japanese backgrounds for the Japanese-speaking roles, even including Yoko Ono as Assistant-Scientist-Yoko-ono. Other big names that make an appearance include Bryan Cranston, Bill Murray, Greta Gerwig and Frances McDormand. Be sure not to miss this charming and highly capable flick!
— Ryan Tuozzolo
Giles Nuttgens’ cinematography in “Colette” provides the imagery of an average period piece on crack. Sure, there are long, sweeping shots through the meadows of the French countryside and the opulent houses of the social to-do in turn-of-the-century Paris. But to a greater extent, Nuttgens’ utmost accomplishment is the means by which his cinematography scarcely distracts from the story at hand. First and foremost, his shots center Colette (Keira Knightley). We watch as she rises from a sarcophagus, literally centered by the frame as though she’s in a Wes Anderson film. But because she’s not, the emphasis isn’t on the brilliant camera work: It’s on Knightley’s expression, her character appearing confident and collected, a stark contrast from the innocent farm girl Nuttgens captured earlier running through the fields.
From a massive, illuminating pyre comprising Colette’s scandalous and sapphic (and therefore banned and burned) “Claudine en ménage” novels that overtakes the screen, to the graceful way by which Colette’s gorgeous cursive fills the frame as she secretly writes the “Claudine” novels under her husband’s name, the grace and poise of Colette’s portrayal is in part because of the beautiful imagery provided to her story by Nuttgens.
— Caroline Smith
Runner-up: Rachel Morrison, “Black Panther”
The work of Academy Award nominee Rachel Morrison on “Black Panther” renders it one of the most visually striking films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, if not 2018 as a whole. One scene in particular is most emblematic of Morrison’s skill behind the camera — the casino showdown that kicks the film’s second act into high gear. As a battle erupts on two floors of a South Korean casino, the camera zips from the bottom floor to the second floor not once, but twice, capturing most of the action in a complicated single take. Thanks to Morrison, the scene appears seamless and fluid, a testament to her standing as one of the best cinematographers working today.
— Harrison Tunggal
Contact the Daily Cal Arts Staff at [email protected].