By John Mulderig
2018 was an especially strong year both for documentaries and for fictional films exploring real-life issues, the ramifications of racism in particular. Other timely topics included the place of social media in contemporary life and the centennial of the end of World War I.
Outstanding movies suitable for a wide variety of ages ranged from new iterations of classic stories to fact-based tales about the struggles of a famous veteran and the waning career of a beloved comedy team.
Below – in alphabetical order – are the Media Review Office of Catholic News Service‘s picks for last year’s top 10 movies overall and top 10 family-friendly films.
The key to Catholic News Service classifications for the movies listed below: A-I – general patronage; A-II – adults and adolescents; A-III – adults; L – limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling.
The Motion Picture Association of America ratings for the films, where available: G – general audiences. All ages admitted; PG – parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children; PG-13 – parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13; R – restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Top 10 movies overall:
Religion is central to writer-director Drew Goddard’s intense, challenging drama, Bad Times at the El Royale. In 1969, a strange array of guests – including a mild-mannered priest (Jeff Bridges), a hard-edged hippie (Dakota Johnson), a glib traveling salesman (Jon Hamm) and a reserved soul singer (Cynthia Erivo) – checks into the past-its-prime hotel of the title (Lewis Pullman plays its timid manager). Secrets, false identities and a trove of stolen cash are mixed into a sophisticated but gritty story that takes a serious and refreshingly respectful stance toward faith, albeit Goddard’s oblique approach to the subject may not be to every believer’s taste. (L, R)
Black Panther is a sprawling, energetic Marvel Comics adaptation from director and co-writer Ryan Coogler. The young sovereign (Chadwick Boseman) of an imaginary – and secret – African kingdom must cope with two principal threats to his realm: the first is posed by a South African arms dealer (Andy Serkis), the second concerns the on-going consequences of a long-ago family conflict (involving Michael B Jordan). Real-world political preoccupations are incorporated into this sci-fi tinged action adventure while plot developments weigh vengeance against justice and violent revolution against peaceful reform. (A-III, PG-13)
Director and co-writer Spike Lee has a field day with the richly ironic, fact-based mix of drama and comedy BlackKklansman. Adapted from a memoir by Ron Stallworth, the film recounts how, after becoming the first African-American police officer in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in the early 1970s, rookie cop Stallworth (John David Washington), together with a Jewish colleague (Adam Driver), managed to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. Laura Harrier plays the campus radical for whom Stallworth falls as he carries on the masquerade while Topher Grace portrays the Klan’s then-leader, David Duke. (A-III, R)
All the varied horrors of middle school are on display in the low-key, moving Eighth Grade, written and directed by Bo Burnham. Elsie Fisher plays an unpopular teen on the brink of graduation as she yearns for the boy of her dreams (Luke Prael), is pursued by a likable goofball (Jake Ryan), gets put down by a duo of mean girls (Catherine Oliviere and Nora Mullins) and squirms under the loving but overzealous care of her well-meaning single dad (Josh Hamilton). Burnham’s screenplay, which blends comedy and drama, implicitly condemns the low morals of the hookup culture, subtly endorses nondenominational religious faith and carries an overall message of hope. (A-III, R)
First Reformed, a drama about a Protestant minister (Ethan Hawke) in upstate New York, has quite a bit to say about religious belief, environmentalism, grieving, alienation, rage, the power of love, and the corruption of religion by money and power. Writer-director Paul Schrader does not condescend to belief but is interested instead in launching discussions about what faith means and what actions best express it. There’s much to savour in his intelligent, often-elegant story. (A-III, R).
Real-life issues of racial justice are explored in the compelling drama The Hate U Give, adapted from Angie Thomas’ novel for young adults by director George Tillman Jr. An African-American teen (Amandla Stenberg) divides her time between her mostly black working-class neighborhood and the predominantly white private school she attends, adjusting her behaviour to suit each environment. But her uneasy equilibrium is thrown off balance when she witnesses the shooting of a childhood friend (Algee Smith) by a white police officer (Drew Starkey). Although passionate in tone, the film maintains credibility by its evenhandedness and ultimately points toward a solution to the problems it portrays that viewers committed to Gospel morality will easily endorse. (A-III, PG-13)
The compact, stylish horror film A Quiet Place showcases strong, trusting family ties as dad John Krasinski, who also directed and co-wrote, mom Emily Blunt and their two surviving children (Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe) initially evade and eventually battle the invading aliens, armed with incredibly acute hearing, who killed their youngest. Krasinski and script collaborators Bryan Woods and Scott Beck presume their audience’s intelligence and avoid distasteful cliches. (A-III, PG-13)
Searching is a gripping thriller in which a doting widowed father (John Cho) discovers he knows less about his teen daughter’s (Michelle La) life than he thought after she mysteriously disappears, and he has to aid the detective on the case (Debra Messing) by investigating the high schooler’s online social interaction for clues about her fate. Director and co-writer Aneesh Chaganty cleverly incorporates current technology into the plot of his feature debut and the script, penned with Sev Ohanian, offers a subtle but touching affirmation of family life in the face of death and grief. (A-III, PG-13)
A four-year passion project for director Peter Jackson, the innovative documentary on the First World War They Shall Not Grow Old establishes an immediacy and intimacy to the 1914-18 global conflict that cost 20 million lives. Archival black-and-white silent footage shot by British cameramen has been restored and colorised, with sound effects added and the oral histories of veterans used as narration. Although not for the faint-of-heart, given the explicit sights of battlefield carnage, the film is an unorthodox and engrossing history lesson and a powerful reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. (A-III, R)
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a cheerful and reverent documentary about Fred Rogers (1928-2003), creator and host of PBS’ long-running Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. It highlights his calm temperament, as well as his moral courage in the face of adversity and indifference. Director Morgan Neville, who includes interviews with Rogers’ family and supporting cast members in addition to vintage film clips, also enjoys making some faintly political points. Rogers’ spiritual life and his role as a Presbyterian minister are given only oblique references. But his gentle, soft-spoken personality shines through. (A-III, PG-13)
Top 10 family films:
Christopher Robin is an enchanting fantasy in which, having grown into a harried middle-aged efficiency expert (Ewan McGregor), the formerly free-spirited title character prioritises work over family life, provoking a crisis in his relationship with his devoted wife (Hayley Atwell) and loving daughter (Bronte Carmichael). To his rescue comes his iconic childhood teddy bear, Winnie the Pooh (voice of Jim Cummings). Director Marc Forster makes deft use of the figures created by AA Milne and EH Shepard in the 1920s, marshalling droll humour to convey the message that there are better goals to be pursued than merely getting ahead. (A-II, PG)
Incredibles 2 pitches the worthy lessons of its 2004 predecessor about love, family, courage and helping others in need. The Parr family – parents Bob (voice of Craig T Nelson) and Helen (voice of Holly Hunter), and kids Violet (voice of Sarah Vowell), Dash (voice of Huck Milner), and baby Jack-Jack (voice of Eli Fucile) – pick up right where they left off, having just used their assorted superhuman abilities to vanquish the forces of evil. But their victory is short-lived; the law still dictates that “supers” must remain undercover and inactive, so they reluctantly go back to their humdrum existence. Returning director Brad Bird’s film has increased violence and some language lapses that make it best for teens and their elders. (A-II, PG)
Mary Poppins Returns, a delightful sequel to the 1964 classic, finds the omni-competent nanny of the title (Emily Blunt) swooping into Depression-era London to help the now-grown brother (Ben Whishaw) and sister (Emily Mortimer) she tended as children face a family crisis. Sprightly set-piece musical numbers, the main character’s engaging blend of common sense and whimsical magic and thoroughly entertaining cameos make director Rob Marshall’s film a first-class treat for all but the youngest and most skittish members of the family. (A-I, PG)
Midnight Sun, the remake of a 2006 Japanese film, is a sweet, heartfelt movie, directed by Scott Speer. A teenager (Bella Thorne) suffers from an incurable disease due to which any exposure to sunlight could prove fatal. Housebound during the day, she is cared for by her overprotective father (Rob Riggle) and best friend (Quinn Shephard). Venturing out one evening, she meets her long-time crush (Patrick Schwarzenegger), whom she has secretly watched from her bedroom window for years. They fall for each other, but he is unaware of her condition. Mature teens will benefit from this old-fashioned romance with its positive role models and good lessons in love and compassion. (A-II, PG-13)
In the charming animated sequel Ralph Breaks the Internet, two arcade game characters, the burly eponymous demolition specialist (voice of John C Reilly) and his best friend (voice of Sarah Silverman), a diminutive race car driver, find both their resourcefulness and their relationship put to the test when her environment is threatened with destruction. Directors Phil Johnston (who also co-wrote the script) and Rich Moore deliver a picturesque and often funny adventure that carries reassuring lessons about loyalty and forgiveness. (A-II, PG)
An endearing animated slice of history, the comedy-tinged drama Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero follows the adventures of the plucky canine who became an honorary non-commissioned officer in the US Army thanks to his feats of derring-do during World War I. Adopted by a young soldier (voice of Logan Lerman) doing basic training in his hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, the formerly hungry, homeless pooch becomes the mascot of the 26th Infantry “Yankee” Division Narrated by Helena Bonham Carter, director and co-writer Richard Lanni’s movie makes an easy introduction to an important chapter of America’s past for young people. (A-II, PG)
While noisy and frenetic, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is also an innovative animated take on the Marvel Comics superhero saga. It focuses on a Brooklyn teen (voice of Shameik Moore) who, like the original before him, acquires web-slinging abilities after being bitten by a radioactive arachnid. A message about the importance of family bonds and a lesson in living up to your potential are conveyed amid stylised dustups and psychedelic imagery in this film from co-director and co-writer Rodney Rothman who penned the script with Phil Lord and shared the helm with Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey. (A-II, PG)
In Stan & Ollie, film comedy icons Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C Reilly) fight off age and obscurity with immense courage during what would be their final tour of British music halls in 1953. Director Jon Baird and screenwriter Jeff Pope have achieved a poignant, pitch-perfect, affectionately nostalgic story without much bitterness and no hidden dark sides. The upshot is the sublime joy of an earlier age, impeccably reproduced. (A-II, PG)
The gentle documentary Summer in the Forest directed by Randall Wright, provides a loving portrait of Canadian Jean Vanier and of L’Arche (the Ark), the network of communities he founded for the developmentally disabled and those who care for them. Through the stories of five residents, the film shows what a blessing L’Arche, with its commitment to the dignity of every human person, has been in the lives of many. (A-II, Not Rated)
More artful than many faith-motivated movies, the sequel and conversion story Unbroken: Path to Redemption continues the biography of Olympic runner-turned-war-hero Louie Zamperini (Samuel Hunt). Having survived the downing of his plane over the Pacific and torturous captivity by the Japanese, Air Force bombardier Zamperini returns home, goes on the road to sell war bonds and falls for a cheerful and devout Florida native (Merritt Patterson). But all the while he is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Director Harold Cronk’s drama – adapted, like its 2014 predecessor, from Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 best-seller – is both appealing in its promotion of faith and forgiveness and suitable for a wide audience. (A-II, PG-13)