Ten best lists are notoriously subjective, but here are my bests in film and theater for 2018. Go ahead, argue with me. Make my day.
1. Green Book – Yes, it is an odd couple road trip movie, but director/co-writer Peter Farrelly (right, the guy who gave us Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary) takes those familiar tropes and turns them into a slyly comic, ultimately feel-good film about life in the segregated South of the early 1960s. With standout performances by Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen as a cultured black concert pianist and his blue-collar chauffeur.
2. Roma – The title refers to the neighborhood of Mexico City where director/screenwriter/cinematographer Alfonso Cuarón (Oscar winner for Gravity) grew up, watching his parents’ marriage implode while he was reared by the family housekeeper, Cleo (a stunning debut by Yalitza Aparicio), who has her own romantic woes. Shot in exquisite black-and-white, which lends this memory tale a dream-like quality.
3. If Beale Street Could Talk – Director Barry Jenkins follows up his triumphant breakthrough on Moonlight by adapting James Baldwin’s novel about the travails of an engaged African-American couple, pregnant Tish and her lover Fonny. He is wrongly accused of rape, at a time when justice was rare for those on the wrong side of the racial divide. In a first-rate ensemble cast, Regina King as Tish’s fiercely determined mother is a standout.
4. Vice – With tongue firmly planted in cheek, director/writer Adam McKay (2006’s The Big Short) tells the history of ambitious Dick Cheney. Tapped to head the search committee for a vice president to George W. Bush, he chooses himself instead. In the most unlikely casting, Christian Bale is unrecognizable as the increasingly jowly Cheney, the performance of the year. In stellar support are Amy Adams as his wife Lynne (a/k/a Lady Macbeth), Steve Carrell as his mentor, Donald Rumsfeld and Sam Rockwell as genial, clueless George W.
5. A Star is Born – Yes, this is the fourth time this iconic show business story is being told, but first-time director Bradley Cooper places this romance between an on-the-way-down alcoholic celebrity and his new singing discovery in a very authentic rock music world. Cooper demonstrates that he can sing well enough to be believed in the role of Jackson Maine, and in Lady Gaga, we are watching a genuine star being born. If nothing else, it seems to have a lock on Best Song for Cooper and Gaga’s “Shallow.”
6. Eighth Grade – There have been plenty of movies about the anguish of middle school, but few that get us so strongly in touch with our own growing pains like this tale of introverted Kayla (Elsie Fisher, in a pitch-perfect debut), trying to negotiate the final days of the title school year before the quantum leap to high school. Also debuting as director and screenwriter is former stand-up comic Bo Burnham, whose ability to channel Kayla’s thoughts and actions is nothing short of uncanny.
7. Leave No Trace – A documentary-like fictional saga of an Iraq War veteran and his 13-year-old daughter who resourcefully live off the grid in the forests of Portland, Ore. But a careless mistake brings the government into their lives, injecting them into the social services system. Ben Foster is impressively low-key as PTSD-riddled Will, though he is overshadowed by newcomer Thomasin McKenzie as his daughter Tom. Director Debra Granik, who brought Jennifer Lawrence to our attention with Winter’s Bone, has a similar find in McKenzie.
8. RBG – 85-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is given the rock star treatment in this unabashedly biased biography detailing how she battled the sexist legal system to change the way the law looks at gender. And along the way she gained a seat on the highest court in the land. Directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West got exceptional access to Ginsburg’s life – personal and professional – and show her for the unlikely pop culture icon she has become.
9. Isle of Dogs – Following up on Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson has another stop-motion animation winner in this tale of canine genocide and the Japanese boy out to halt it. It probably helps if you are familiar with the films of the great Akira Kurosawa, which were Anderson’s inspiration, but even without that context, you should be able to enjoy the fast and furious visual and verbal humor in this dark futuristic tale of an outbreak of dog flu which leads to a mandatory quarantine of pooches onto Trash Island. Listen for the A-list voice cast that includes Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray and Greta Gerwig among many others.
10. First Man – No, not Adam, but Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, as impersonated by Ryan Gosling. He works his way through NASA space training to earn the honor of being crammed into a claustrophobic, rickety capsule and shot into the history books. Director Damien Chazelle makes minimal use of computerized effects for his down-to-earth view of the Gemini mission, yet achieves the best film on space travel since 2001: A Space Odyssey. With an emphasis on the stress placed on Armstrong’s family, Claire Foy is a standout as Armstrong’s hand-wringing wife, Janet.
1. Bridges of Madison County (Slow Burn Theatre) – Forget the potboiler best-selling novel and the similarly risible Meryl Streep-Clint Eastwood movie. Somehow composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown and adapter Marsha Norman have given this soapy tale of unexpected romance between an Italian war bride and a National Geographic photographer an alchemical transformation into a high art musical. Too rarified to last on Broadway, the show fit Slow Burn’s mission of mounting underappreciated musicals, deftly directed by Patrick Fitzwater with smoldering performances by Anna Lise Jensen and Cooper Grodin.
2. Fun Home (Zoetic Stage) – As further proof that musicals can come from the most unlikely sources is this saga of lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechel and her complex family relationships, based on her autobiographical graphic novel. As she grapples with her sexual orientation, Alison is convinced that no one else has ever had such feelings, only to later learn that her father is gay. Three actresses play Alison in overlapping segments of her life – the again stunning Anna Lise Jensen, Alexa Lasanta and Kimmie Johnson – as staged for maximum clarity by Stuart Meltzer.
3. Hamilton (Broward Center) – Yes, you can believe the hype, the Tony awards, the Pulitzer Prize and the recent Kennedy Center honor. Ambitious doesn’t begin to describe the achievement of Lin-Manuel Miranda in relating the history of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, first secretary of the Treasury, with a staunchly multi-cultural cast and an eclectic score of hip-hop, rap, rhythm and blues and pure Broadway. And the touring company, led by Joseph Morales in the title role, is well-drilled by director Thomas Kail and in constant motion thanks to choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler.
4. Equus (Palm Beach Dramaworks) – From a small newspaper item about a teenage boy who inexplicably blinds a stable of horses, Peter Shaffer spun a tale of psychology and mythology, a drama of passion and pain and a detective story. But beyond the boy’s motive, the play becomes just as interested in the demons plaguing the doctor who tries to wean him to normalcy. J. Barry Lewis’s stylized production drew towering performances from Peter Simon Hilton (Dr. Martin Dysart) and Steven Maier (Alan Strang).
5. Mr. Parker (Island City Stage) – The best of several plays by Michael McKeever that were produced this year has a title role tailored to the South Florida playwright. After his partner dies, the 54-year-old Parker has difficulty starting his life over until he wakes up next to a hunky 28-year-old, a one-night-stand (he assumes) from a bar pickup. The December-May relationship leads him on a journey of self-discovery about what it means to be middle-aged, gay and single today. McKeever’s performance in this world premiere production was equal parts comic and touching.
6. If I Forget (GableStage) – Tony Award winner Steven Levenson (Dear Evan Hansen) wrote this complex family drama about three grown siblings returning home to deal with their father who is slipping into dementia. Memory is a central motif of the play, as one of the sibs, an almost tenured professor puts his career in jeopardy with a new book that argues that American Jews should put aside thoughts of the Holocaust for their own mental health. That is just one of the woes of this increasingly stressed out clan dealing with the political climate at the turn of the 21st century. Joe Adler casts the play well with familiar area actors, and captures its angst as well as its mordant humor.
7. An Inspector Calls (Maltz Jupiter Theatre) – Socialist playwright J.B. Priestly used an upper-class British family, circa 1912, as a microcosm for all society, demonstrating its interconnectedness. A police inspector not only calls on but interrogates this capitalist clan, insisting they share the guilt for a young woman driven to take her own life. Busy freelance director J. Barry Lewis found the right degree of melodrama and theatricality to implicate us all.
8. The Pink Unicorn (Primal Forces) – In one of the more conventional plays from this peripatetic troupe, big-haired, small-town Texas mom Trisha somehow finds the strength to cope with her teenage daughter’s announcement that she considers herself gender-neutral and wants to be referred to as “they.” Elise Fourier Edie wrote this one-woman play which gets delivered by Laura Turnbull with sublime bewilderment as Trisha becomes a gender activist, much to the dismay of her church community. Enlightenment has rarely been this much fun.
9. Indecent (Palm Beach Dramaworks) – Playwright Paula Vogel relates the history of a 1907 melodrama by novice dramatist Sholem Asch, which met with critical and legal outrage when it landed on Broadway in the 1920s. The play-within-a-play not only demonstrates the resilience of a piece of theater, but also of the Jewish people. The epic tale is staged impressionistically here – partially in Yiddish – with an ensemble of seven and a tiny klezmer band.
10. Be Here Now (FAU Theatre Lab) – Thought-provoking and quirky describes the latest new work by Deborah Zoe Laufer, who has been showcased by artistic director Lou Tyrell since his days at Florida Stage. It centers on a hopeless pessimist named Bari whose world view suddenly changes when she develops a rare mental condition. Convinced to go on a blind date, she meets a guy who embraces life as well as building materials made of garbage – the source of his MacArthur genius grant. Laura Turnbull is a delightfully bewildered Bari, but she is topped by Des Gallant – FAU’s theater department chair – as scavenger Mike, returning to the stage with gusto.