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Reflecting on 2018’s best films

As 2018 comes to a close, we reflect on its best art -- starting with film. The year included some major blockbusters, but it was also notable for a number of movies containing a socially relevant message. Jeffrey Brown speaks with film critics Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post and Mike Sargent of WBAI about "If Beale Street Could Talk" and other standout favorites from the year in film.

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  • Nick Schifrin:

    Christmas week is a time when many of us catch up on movies, either on our couches or in the theaters.

    So, we turn to our Jeffrey Brown, who kicks off a weeklong look at some of the year's best art, starting today with the silver screen.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The past year was, as always, a big one for blockbusters, but it was also notable for a number of socially relevant films and movies with a greater sense of diversity and inclusion.

    The biggest hit of the year in fact was "Black Panther." We look at other notable offerings with a pair of film critics who we often check in with, Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post and Mike Sargent, chief film critic for WBAI and co-president of the Black Film Critics Circle.

    Welcome back to both of you.

    I want to start with the one that you both had on your list. It was "If Beale Street Could Talk."

    Ann, why that one?

  • Ann Hornaday:

    This is just an exquisite movie.

    It's an adaptation of the James Baldwin novel by Barry Jenkins, whose film "Moonlight" won best picture a couple of years ago. And I think what I love about Barry Jenkins' work — and it's exemplified in this movie — is that it's not just about plot. It's not just about characters, even though this story is deeply meaningful and the characters are vivid.

    But this movie is told in such a rich way, so visually, and so emotionally, that it just becomes an exercise almost in visual poetry and feeling. I mean, the ultimate takeaway is one of feeling, rather than story. And I love that.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    OK, we have got a short clip of that. Let's take a look.

  • Actress:

    This is a sacrament. And, no, I ain't lost my mind. We are drinking to new life. Tish is going to have Fonny's baby.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Mike Sargent, why did you pick this film?

  • Mike Sargent:

    Well, I picked this film for a number of reasons.

    And like Ann said, he has the ability to make something very emotional, almost visceral. And he also can take material that you may have seen before in a movie. A story like "Beale Street," we have seen — a lot of the themes that are in "Beale Street" have been done before, but Barry Jenkins can really cast a spell.

    As you're watching the film, you're swept up in the feeling and in the music, in the cinematography, and the acting, and the characters. And it literally casts a spell on you. And it makes you — as Ann said, you come away with a feeling. You have just gone through something when you see this movie.

    So this is a movie that should have been made a long time, ago but I'm glad it is now made by this filmmaker.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    OK, glad it's now around.

    So, Ann, give us a couple. Give us two more, briefly.

  • Ann Hornaday:

    Two that I'm just — that I love, one is called "Roma" by Alfonso Cuaron, very similar to "Beale Street" in a way, in terms of just the cinematography and the acting and the way that he structures the narrative is just engulfing. It's just an immersive experience and a really grand one.

    And another one called "The Rider," which came out earlier this year by Chloe Zhao. She kind of reimagines the American Western using an entire cast of non-professional actors, most of them real life cowboys. So it manages to sort of merge the mythic American West with something much more kind of daily and gritty and real.

    And I just — I just loved the vision of it.

  • Mike Sargent:

    I really have to say "A Quiet Place." I don't know if you know the premise of "A Quiet Place," is, it's the future. Aliens have come. They have killed most humans.

    But they realize that the aliens can't see, but they can hear you. So if you stay quiet, you can live.

    And this is a film directed by John Krasinski. And it stars him and his wife, Emily Blunt. Movies and good stories are about setup and payoff. This movie set so many things up so well and pays off so well. Completely made me look at John Krasinski differently.

    And the second film — I may get killed for this because most of my colleagues, black film critics, don't agree — but "Green Book." I loved "Green Book." I thought it was a great film.

    And a lot of the criticism is that, you know, the magical Negro and the tropes that it brings out, and it's stereo — but, I mean, Hollywood makes Hollywood movies.

    It's a road movie. It's a buddy movie. It's a movie about two people's lives who were changed by the fact that they connected. And I think that's what it is, and I think it does it very, very well.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    We asked you both to pick out a performance that stood out for you.

    And, Ann, you chose Ethan Hawke playing a pastor in the film "First Reformed."

    Let's take a look.

  • Ethan Hawke:

    Courage is the solution to despair. Reason provides no answers. I can't know what the future will bring. We have to choose, despite uncertainty.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Ann, tell us about that.

  • Ann Hornaday:

    This is an extraordinary performance by Ethan Hawke, who has been so good in so many movies the last few years.

    I feel like we have almost watched him grow up on screen. He started as that cute young guy in the rom-coms, and he is aging so beautifully in this role as a troubled priest trying to pastor to his community, while he's undergoing his own crisis of faith. It's all there on his face.

    I mean, he's great with the dialogue. This is written and directed by Paul Schrader. And Ethan Hawke really commands all of the feeling and the verbiage of that screenplay, but it's really his face and the expressiveness of the age lines on his face and the expression in his eyes that I think is just overwhelming.

    It's just a — it's just a tour de force for him.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And, Mike Sargent, you picked Christian Bale doing an uncanny Dick Cheney in the film "Vice."

    Let's watch that.

  • Christian Bale:

    The vice presidency is a mostly symbolic job. However, if we came to a different understanding, I can handle the more mundane jobs, overseeing bureaucracy, military, energy, and foreign policy.

  • Sam Rockwell:

    Yes, right. I like that.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, Michael, that one brings a smile. I can't help but smile at that one.

  • Mike Sargent:

    Well, this is the story of Dick Cheney and how he ended up becoming the vice president, and a lot of things that led up to him being the Dick Cheney we all know.

    You really forget that you're watching Christian Bale. I mean, the makeup helps, but he's got the mannerisms, the speech. He gained 45 pounds for the role. It really makes you understand Dick Cheney as a man. And I was never, clearly, a fan of Dick Cheney, but, watching it, you kind of go, oh, I get Dick Cheney now, and I understand him.

    And it's really largely due to the performance that Christian Bale gives. And I have to say, Adam McKay, his take on things, his fractured narrative, the humor, it's a really, surprisingly good movie and a fantastic performance.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    I want to ask you both. You know, we have asked you this in the past.

    Something that got lost or overlooked, that one film that you tell your loved ones or best friends, you got to see this.

    Ann?

  • Ann Hornaday:

    Well, one that I wish more people had seen is "First Man," with Ryan Gosling playing Neil Armstrong. It's a masterful movie, and it's a very deeply patriotic movie, and another deeply emotional movie about a man processing his own grief by isolating himself in space.

    And the visceral, kind of verite style really puts you right into the capsule with him. I thought it was a thrilling experience.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Mike Sargent, what have you got?

  • Mike Sargent:

    Well, mine is a film that came out towards the end of the year and just did a limited run.

    And it's the "Making The Five Heartbeats" by Robert Townsend. This is a film that looks back on — it's kind of a seminal film. It was way ahead of its time, didn't do well at the box office. But seeing what he did, as he looks back, all the auditions he had, what he went through with the studios, how they told him it wouldn't work, how — the racism he experienced, all of that, it really brings you back to that time here in America.

    But it makes you — any artist, anybody who has anything they want to do will be inspired by this film. It could be subtitled persistence of vision. It's really one, do not miss it, wherever you can see it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, some of the best of 2018.

    Ann Hornaday, Mike Sargent, thank you both again.

  • Ann Hornaday:

    Thank you.

  • Mike Sargent:

    You're welcome.

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