Words and talking
vice.jpg

Reviews

Between 2005-2016 I wrote more than 2,000 reviews for the Chicago Tribune's RedEye. Here's a good place to start.

My 10 favorite movies of 2018

Looks back on what his year-end intro was last year:

Well, 2017 was a pretty terrible year in the world, and, as Top 10 lists go, I can't say I feel as strongly about the following batch as those of previous years.

But 1. At this point let’s praise anything that makes us feel better and 2. In the grand scheme, whether or not this year’s movies were quite as good as any other year’s movies isn’t anywhere near the top of the list of things people should care about right now.

Hey, that applies to 2018 as well! Let’s dive in:

IFC

IFC

10. “Wildlife”

Not at all trendy and extremely affecting, "Wildlife" is the type of movie the word "assured" was made for. You'd never think it was the directorial debut for Paul Dano (who wrote the excellent script with his partner Zoe Kazan), who lets very fine actors do their thing without ever abandoning a vision. As a 1960s couple (Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal) breaks down and their teenage son (Ed Oxenbould) watches his mom cope after dad leaves to find work, the movie does nothing flashy. Relationships strain, people want, and drama with a classic commitment to truth unfolds. If you think that sounds boring, you're part of why this doesn't get made more. Also, it’s hard to make something so clean, tough and right.

Sony

Sony

9. “Searching”

Anything but a gimmick, "Searching," a thriller in which everything we see is on the laptop browser of a dad (John Cho) helping investigate his teenage daughter's disappearance, is really about how little anyone actually knows at a point when seemingly all information is available all the time. That isn't used for some lame "social media only harms connections rather than creating them" message; instead, this clever mystery focuses on how easily the mind can run away with information gathered online, with all the possible manipulations that come into play in a post-"Catfish" world. It would be one thing if "Searching" were just engrossing and unpredictable; that it manages to be unexpectedly moving, on top of sharply acted, makes this little movie a bigger achievement than it seems. Genuine suspense as well as a clear sense of character and investment in their success? Eat your heart out, "Widows."

HBO

HBO

8. “United Skates”

Do you know how many roller rinks have closed around the country in the last 10-20 years? How many local skate styles can you name? I admit I knew nothing about the cultural import within "United Skates," but the movie's an engrossing document of social change no matter what you come in with. Focusing on rinks in L.A., Chicago and North Carolina while tracing the dwindling numbers nationwide, this intelligent and sad documentary identifies how roller rinks have functioned as safe spaces for the black community, from a place where hip-hop artists like N.W.A. and Queen Latifah performed in the early days of their careers or where, astoundingly, Bloods and Crips called a truce because there was only one rink left in town and both gangs accepted everyone was just there to have a good time. Of course, the film also includes how KKK members protested outside rinks about how black skaters should go back to Africa, and we see how the last day of Skate Depot in L.A. sparks extensive police presence for no identifiable reason other than the color of the skin of those in attendance. "R&B night," "soul night," even "Martin Luther King Jr. night." There are a lot of codes (e.g. no saggy pants) in America about who is and isn't welcome. “United Skates” Is joyous, informative, necessary.

Paramount

Paramount

7. “A Quiet Place”

How absurd and reassuring for director John Krasinski to follow the excruciating “The Hollars” with this ingenious thriller, which takes a great idea – blind monsters have taken over and only attack when they hear something, so SHHHHHHHH!!!!! – and milks it for maximum tension. So many horror movies are all noise, with the softer moments the exception. Here the impossibility of saying much provides opportunity for a different, refreshing kind of communication and performance. Emily Blunt and (her husband) Krasinski are great as mom and dad in a family fighting the invasion, and the beasts look pretty damn good too, like “Venom” if he was all anger, no chill.

A24

A24

6. “Eighth Grade”

It has too many laughs not to qualify as a comedy. But “Eighth Grade” is more of an original, stomach muscle-clenching psychological thriller, adding hope to the everyday horror of life at 14. Writer-director Bo Burnham wouldn’t have been able to pull off a painfully true depiction of adolescence’s uncertainty and yearning without a knockout lead performance that said a ton through body language and shifts in facial discomfort. And as curious, fearful, determined, confused Kayla, Elsie Fisher is remarkable. She is “Eighth Grade,” and the startling accuracy of “Eighth Grade” is further evidence of what makes the bland clichés of “Boyhood” so weirdly detached from what teenaged feels like.

The Orchard

The Orchard

5. “American Animals”

In this riveting, relentlessly clever mix of documentary and narrative, four dudes in their late teens/early 20s decide to steal rare, extremely valuable books from the special collections section of the Transylvania University library in Kentucky. Written and directed by Bart Layton, who made the controversial 2012 documentary "The Imposter," "American Animals" has the same troubling focus on identity, of whether something manufactured can ever really be authentic. Alternating between the real guys and the actors playing them (including Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan and Blake Jenner) achieves a hypnotic honesty, admitting the falseness of memory just as vividly as "The Tale" while coming to terms with youthful, entitled dissatisfaction. "American Animals" does not blame movies like "Reservoir Dogs" for informing its subjects of how they might pull off a robbery; it merely observes a cocktail of boredom, ambition and peer pressure, topped off with romanticizing the first two-thirds of a movie and shrugging off the inevitable downfall. At a time when American kids have countless reasons to feel concerned and want change, "American Animals" is a moral examination that follows the brain to places it never thought it could go, and only too late realizes why. Delicious, smart, thought-provoking and wildly underrated.

National Geographic

National Geographic

4. “Free Solo”

What kind of person goes rock climbing without a rope? What type of risks make life worthwhile? And how many times can you say "Oh my god oh my god oh my god" to yourself while watching a movie? Consider all of these while watching "Free Solo," a truly jaw-dropping documentary following climber Alex Honnold as he tries to become the first person to scale Yosemite National Park's El Capitan without any support -- and, of course, with a camera crew capturing his every move. Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi nicely incorporate Alex's emotionally detached upbringing without overplaying it, as well as his developing relationship with Sandi McCandless (no relation to Chris McCandless of "Into the Wild" as far as I can tell, but how common can that name be?) and if that will impact his pursuit of periodically putting himself in position to fall to his death at even the slightest mistake. The footage is astonishing, and the human element is captured sharply. I’ll be a little surprised if movie star-look-alike Lukas Haas isn't starring in the Alex Honnold story soon, though no chance that's as good as this.

Magnolia

Magnolia

3. “Support the Girls”

People are more than the sum of their parts, and so is “Support the Girls,” a collection of small moments throughout one day in the lives of women simply going to work and dealing with everything at the office and outside it. In an all-too-rare starring role deserving of her, Regina Hall is wonderful as the general manager of Double Whammies, a Hooters-style bar that doesn’t have the same corporate support and is in danger of closing because of competition like a new nationwide chain called the Mancave. There are so many fantastic low-key moments that it is almost better to go in knowing nothing and letting writer-director Andrew Bujalski’s deceptively underplayed movie knock you out. So I think I’ll leave it at that. (Full review here, ICYMI.)

Neon

Neon

2. “Vox Lux”

What a strange, angry, difficult, stunningly made and deliberately off-balance movie, and I’d say the one most worth arguing about as the year winds down. As Celeste (Raffey Cassidy as a teenager, Natalie Portman as an adult) survives a school shooting at 14 and the song she performs at the resulting vigil becomes just the first in a long string of hits over a decades-long career, writer-director Brady Corbet poses so many questions about the relationship between tragedy and art and people, deliberately staying at a distance to reinforce how much society struggles to devote proper attention to suffering. This is an electric shock of sneering coping mechanism in a nation constantly searching for both stability and escape. It’s fascinating and daring, isolating small bursts of consolation in a deeply upsetting time while asking how enduring joy can exist for kids brought up on relentless heartache. Many are trying to get famous; everyone’s trying to survive. What, Corbet wonders, are we supposed to do with any of this, with so many massive obstacles to change? Watch “Vox Lux” twice, at least, and give this elliptical, sobering material the time it deserves. I can’t stop thinking about it.

Bleecker Street

Bleecker Street

1. “Leave No Trace”

"Leave No Trace" is rated PG. That's astonishing. Not because the rating doesn't fit but because these are some of the other movies this year with the same tag: "Hotel Transylvania 3." "Peter Rabbit." "The House with a Clock in Its Walls." The list of sophisticated, non-animated movies that could inspire some major feelings and conversations with kids is not a list at all, and not just this year. Directed and co-written by Debra Granik ("Winter's Bone"), “Leave No Trace” delivers something so full of strength and sadness that anyone who calls it slow should have to take a 100-level course in humanity. Thirteen-year-old Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie in one of the year's best performances by far) and her veteran dad (Ben Foster, also great) are discovered illegally living in a forest just outside Portland and then find themselves continually on the move, him running from something large and heavy and her happy with her dad's company and guidance as long as she understands what they're doing, which she progressively doesn't. There are no easy answers to adulthood, adolescence or mental illness, also allowing for the vast confusion and generosity that exists in nature and people. How far off the grid can one go? Is there any coming back? Not all who wander are lost, but some are. Quiet, beautiful, compassionate, devastating, "Leave No Trace" is not easily summarized or forgotten.

Matt Pais