Top Ten Overthinking Films of 2018
Overthinking films is not done in the abstract. It's done when you go to a movie and see a particular movie, one that makes you think about the themes it's dealing with, or theway the themes were expressed. You can then take a step back and look at the patterns you see from all the movies you watched and what those movies collectively say. But it all starts with one movie.
So for this post, I'm counting down my top ten favorite overthinking films of 2018. This will give us a chance to zoom in closer on films that prompt us to think deeply and cheer for what's beautiful beyond the screen. I chose these films because they were my favorites: they were the ones that most captured my mind and imagination with the themes they explored and celebrated and the style and filmmaking craft with which they did so. These movies are all fantastic in that way, and as it gets to the top, figuring out which ones edge out the others was a very, very hard task. And I'm still kicking myself by some of the great movies I had to leave out.
Some of these picks will be controversial, but that's part of the fun. By reading and challenging ourselves with each other's top ten lists, we open ourselves up to seeing something in movies that we might not have seen if someone else hadn't pointed it out. And by talking about these movies together we see more of the deep truth and beauty in the world than we ever would have on our own.
So without further ado.
10. Equalizer 2
Equalizer 2 was one of the biggest surprises to me of 2018. It was a rare slow-burn action-thriller that took its time setting up the world and the life of the protagonist without losing the steady rise of the action. But what really set the movie apart was how it painted a picture of what it looks like to truly be a hero in a broken world: go about your every day life investing in your community, guiding broken people when you meet them, and standing up to evil when you see it. Most movies take a look at one extraordinary event in the life of their hero that forces them to be heroic, but this movie shows what it looks like to be a hero in a humble, every day life. Pair that with great action, performances, dialogue, and a slow-burn style, and you've got an unusually satisfying hero story.
9. Death of Stalin
This movie portrays evil better than almost any other movie I've seen. The Death of Stalin follows Stalin's inner circle vying for power and trying to keep the Soviet Union stable following the death of their leader. Most movies portray evil people as larger-than-life monsters or masterminds or even as noble and understandable. The Death of Stalin shows evil as it usually is: ordinary people with power using it selfishly. The villains here are more like Michael Scott from The Office than they are like Darth Vader or Thanos. They are just as incompetent, as insecure, as clueless, as self-centered, as self-justifying, as you and I are--they just have more power. The acting is amazing, the comedy is great, the satire of communism is rarely excellent, the writing is a joy. It also is a breath of fresh air to see a movie portraying the arguably equally evil Soviet Union rather than just giving us another Nazi film.
8. Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Typically movies with an amoral protagonist try to get you to excuse their behavior. It takes a gutsy movie to show you how bad a character is and not try to justify them but still make them likable enough that you want to know what happens. A movie like that also has an amazing opportunity: to make you see how you yourself can sometimes be a very bad person and root for them to be better. That movie can both be challenging and fruitful for discussion, and become a celebration of how redemption can happen when you hit rock bottom. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is all of those things, with an amazing screenplay and terrific performances by Mellisa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant.
Foreign and indie films on the shortlist for the Oscars are always a bit hit-and-miss for me; they often seem to think they're too good for coherent story with a satisfying payoff. Roma is everything good about foreign and independent film with almost none of the bad. Roma gives a voice to a life and perspective we might otherwise never see of a poor, live-in housekeeper in 1970s Mexico City. But instead of expecting us to pity her or hate the class-system or male privilege that abuses her, the movie bravely chooses to show us how such a person can be a hero we admire and through her and her employers answers a universal question: How do you deal with a life that is unfair? You heroically treat each other like a family and love each other.
This movie is available on Netflix so it's a perfect movie to watch to catch up on your must-see movies before the Oscars. 6. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
It's rare to see a movie that understands the appeal of superheroes so completely, so totally: the desire to see someone you admire and the dream that you can be that person too. It's even rarer to have that same movie have a super-smart screenplay that makes every moment a laugh or a cry or send chills down your spine or make you want to stand up and cheer. And it's rarer still for that film to take itself seriously as a work of art to attempt to innovate with that art and animation and do something different from what's been done before. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse does all of those things--and does them spectacularly. Add to that the best--most fitting--Stan Lee cameo ever, and you definitely have a must-see film for the whole family to to share and cheer for. 5. Ralph Breaks the Internet
One of the best things that animation does is find ways to explore and interpret the world we live in in new and fresh ways. After all, any time you draw something, you are interpreting the real world through your eyes. So animation is taylor-made to make sense of the world we live in in an exaggerated manner. (It's always done this too: think of how common the image is of showing a person is in a bad mood by drawing a storm cloud over their head. Someone had to decide that's how people who were upset looked to him, and draw them that way.) The internet is such a huge, defining part of our lives today yet it seems like it would be impossible to portray everything it means to us in film. Ralph Breaks the Internet uses animated characters to portray the internet as a city, full of people and businesses and theme parks and games and simply a whole new world to explore and way to connect with more people and do more and be more--just like a real city. By doing this, Ralph Wrecks the Internet manages to talk about how relationships change in the age of the internet in both good and bad ways, better than (almost) any other movie I've ever seen. It's the ultimate love letter and parody of the internet age. 4. Crazy Rich Asians
Romantic comedies are often perfect venues to celebrate and explore male-female relationships, culture, and worldview. Norah Ephron When Harry Met Sally asked whether it's possible for men and women to be friends. 2017's The Big Sick explored race, religious, and cultural gaps between Pakistan-American immigrants and white Americas. Romantic comedies can explore these questions honestly while also causing you to not just explore, but cheer for their subject matter. This is very hard to do, but the romantic comedy genre has a long history of doing this well. Crazy Rich Asians follows this tradition by exploring the cultural, philosophical, and class gaps between Chinese-Americans and "crazy rich" mainland Chinese-Singaporeans, while still being a universal story about romantic love between men and women. The movie particularly explores the clash between the modern Western values of individualism and self-actualization and the traditional Eastern values of family-first responsibility and sacrifice in smart, subtle, direct, respectful and satisfying ways. It does this while being a beautiful celebration of a variety of Asian cultures and experiences we don't often get to see onscreen.
As a film, the script is almost flawless, but it's the acting and the editing that stand out as some of the best I've seen this year. The film relies heavily on the actors's natural charisma, comedic timing, and natural reliability to carry us through, and the editing keeps everything moving along at a brisk pace. Many people will overlook this movie as a feel-good romantic comedy. But it's the very fact that it can explore things so deeply while still working as sheer celebration of true love that makes it such a great work of art.
3. Black Panther
Black Panther is the biggest cultural phenomenon of the year and deserves every bit of the hype. The film manages to be a comic book movie, a long-needed celebration of African culture, an exploration of politics, race, civilization, and heroism itself. What director Ryan Coogler and the whole team on this movie had to manage to make this film work was nothing short of insane. Black Panther had to satisfy comic book fans, the superhero genre, and the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe; it had to bear the weight of being one of the only black superheroes to lead a film, and the only one who claimed to represent and celebrate black culture and be a symbol of black pride; it had to explore the history of race and colonialism without being preachy or unnecessarily divisive; it had to be a crowd-pleasing blockbuster that made you want to stand up and cheer; it had to be a personal story that moved you. It does all that and stands on its own as an exploration of what it means to be a hero, what it means to be a good leader. Meanwhile it debates interventionism, isolationism, imperialism, whether patriotism means serving your country or fighting against it, how you honor the legacy of your history while admitting that some of it was wrong. (As a chronic overthinker, being able to sink my teeth into all those subject matters in one movie was heaven.)
The writing, acting, production-value are phenomenal. There are some annoying plot holes (why does stabbing do nothing to people sometimes but prove instantly fatal other times?), not every subject matter they bring up they deal with perfectly (the justification of how Wakanda is so wealthy and advanced is a little sketch), and the way the action scenes are filmed is rather boring (too many cuts in the fight scenes probably to hide the face that they didn't have much time to rehearse the fights before shooting). But these merely make the movie a flawed masterpiece. It is a masterpiece none-the-less.
2. Game Night
Game Night is the single greatest comedy of the year and the best party movie since Clue. You don't usually find a lot of comedies on my (or most critics) top ten lists. This is because people like me who make films really important to our life tend to favor films that feel like they're saying something deep and important rather than just fun, and comedies usually focus more on being fun than being important. Additionally, comedies, more than any other genre that I know, tend to ignore the artistic side of film (including, most importantly, in my view, the screenplay) in favor of getting lazy laughs. Game Night is a rare comedy that insists on celebrating something beautiful and taking the filmmaking craft seriously. Game Night opens with a hilariously creative montage that illustrates one of the most profound truths about successful relationships that nobody talks about: falling love over being excited about the same things. One study showed that partners where one could respond positively to what the other was excited about was the highest predictor of a couple staying together--and this is one of the few movies I've seen that portrays that: it makes shared excitement the center of the couples's relationship rather than simply chemistry or attraction.
The acting, editing, and camerawork are all excellent and show real love for the craft. But the true standout achievement of the film is Mark Perez's screenplay. The screenplay is the biggest place most movies fail today, yet Game Night manages to call to mind the witty dialogue of Hollywood's golden age like Casablanca, His Girl Friday, or A Philadelphia Story, or modern masters of dialogue like Aaron Sorkin. The screenplay balances authenticity, drama, meaningful exploration of deep and relatable themes, with the most genuine laugh-or-loud moments of any movie I've seen in ages. Black Panther is a flawed masterpiece, but Game Night is simply a masterpiece.
My favorite movies are the ones that explore and celebrate something beautiful by using real skill in the filmmaking craft. It's the moments where the content (what the movie is talking about) are beautiful and the form (how the film is talking about it) is beautiful. A great achievment in film is one where one succeeds in telling a great story and succeeds in telling it in a great way. (In other words, The Dead Poet's Society was wrong.) Searching is the most sublime example of that I've seen this year. The story is about a father looking for his missing daughter by looking through her social media. The movie excels as a celebration of the beauty of family and a parent's love for their child; It excels as a mystery thriller, with all of the build up, plot twists, and payoffs you expect. It excels as an actor showcase for John Cho, who's been criminally untapped as an actor in Hollywood; it excels as an exploration of relationships in an age of social media.
The movie does this by employing an innovative style: it's all shot as if you were watching the events unfold on the characters laptops, cell phones and various other screens. This means that the film can explore how technology and social media filters, changes, challenges, hides, and illuminates and--sometimes--deepens relationships and our interactions with the world by showing and not telling. When the dad is talking to his daughter or the police chief, you see them relate on video messenger. When he's struggling with what to say, you see that because he's typing up his message via text and then erasing it. When you see how the community is reacting to the news of her disappearance, you see it as a collage of hashtags and memes and video testimonials. By employing this style, the filmmakers give us the most accurate portrayal of how we actually consume information and connect with each other in the modern age I've ever seen--without saying a word. The good and the bad. And in that portrayal, you see loss, grief, hypocrisy, heroism, and real love. Form and content kiss in this movie. This movie helps me see how to see all of these things in my modern everyday life surrounded by screens. And for that I am grateful.
What did you think of my top ten list? Any movies you think should have been on it? Give me your own top ten list in the comments and tell me what your favorite films helped you see in the world.