When TV scholars look back years from now at trends in storytelling structure, I suspect “Unbelievable” (Netflix) will be seen as a pivotal show. The approach of releasing whole seasons at once was pioneered by Netflix several years ago, but most shows still operate as if they are airing weekly in hour-long segments. “Unbelievable” is a rare show that totally embraces the fact that all eight of its episodes will be immediately available.
Scrolling through options under a “David Mamet” search on my Roku, “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay” (2012) comes up a lot. (It’s currently available for free with ads on Vudu.) It’s only tangential to Mamet, who is one of the interview subjects in the documentary. But Jay (1946-2018), like Mamet, is fascinating to listen to when he talks about his craft, so this will likely be of interest to both Mamet fans and magic fans.
The Amazon Prime description for “Lansky” (1999) includes “notorious,” “gambling,” “bootlegging,” “racketeering” and “murder,” but the film – written by David Mamet and directed by John McNaughton for HBO – paints a warm picture of mob boss Meyer Lansky (1902-83). Along with a treasure of a performance by Richard Dreyfuss, “Lansky” is driven by the intrinsic fascination of someone who is a normal family man and skilled businessman, but who is targeted by the U.S. federal government and hated by a percentage of the populace.
Fighting with My Family” doesn’t redefine the sports biopic genre, which in a way is too bad because professional wrestling is such an unusual thing, sitting on the border between athletics and entertainment. It might be fascinating to dig further into the mechanisms of how participants – and ultimately, champions — are chosen and how their narratives are written. As it stands, “Fighting” is a standard biopic in structure, but the story of Paige is so genuinely inspiring, and actress Florence Pugh (“The Little Drummer Girl”) is such a natural star, that the film is totally engaging.
With “The Winslow Boy” (1999), writer-director David Mamet is as much using his name recognition as he is using his skill to bring an important story to the public’s attention. Based on a real legal case, the film is adapted from Terence Rattigan’s 1946 play, which was made into a film two years later, co-written by Rattigan. The 1948 film rates a few percentage points higher (7.7 to 7.4) on IMDB than Mamet’s version. Yet this adaptation is important because it brings a crucial story to a wider audience, and it’s also impeccably directed in Mamet’s no-moment-wasted 105-minute style without sacrificing any turn-of-the-20th-century British affectations.
Writer-director Peter Farrelly smooths out the excesses of his filmmaking traits for the surprisingly mainstream and easy-to-like “Green Book” (2018), now back in theaters and also available for home viewing. It’s not as funny as his best films like “Dumb and Dumber” and not as high-concept as the likes of “Stuck on You” and “Shallow Hal.” It’s possibly a crass grab at mainstream and critical acceptance, but it’s hard to quibble with the finished product.
After his love letters to jazz — “Whiplash” (2014) and “La La Land” (2016) — a film fan wouldn’t be surprised if director Damien Chazelle’s next movie was about Louis Armstrong. But “First Man” (2018) instead chronicles Neil Armstrong, and while it might seem like the pantheon of historical space-program cinema doesn’t need another recounting of Apollo 11, it turns out this is a very welcome addition.
TNT found a nice way to ride the success of a series without forcing it beyond the natural end of its storyline. “The Alienist” – my No. 4 show of 2018 — became a critical and popular success a year ago, but it told a complete serial-murder mystery. That series is over, but TNT is continuing its Suspense Collection with “I Am the Night” (9 p.m. Eastern Mondays).
The dominant genre of 2018 continued to be superheroes; even with the “X-Men” Universe and DC Extended Universe releasing only one film each, the three Marvel Cinematic Universe movies were impossible to overlook. Still, this was a less blockbustery year than 2017, and by year’s end I had seen at least one really good film in every genre. From a throwback thriller to an arthouse gem, here are my 10 favorite films of 2018.
BlacKkKlansman” continues the trend of films based on true stories – along with the likes of “I, Tonya” and “The Disaster Artist” – that would be labeled as illogically plotted if they were fictional. This Spike Lee joint is the story of Ron Stallworth, not the Steelers player but rather a Colorado Springs detective who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan as an undercover detective in the 1970s, despite being black.