Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Best Films of 2018 So Far

We are at the halfway point of 2018 – and I have to say, I think it’s been a quite a strong year so far. I case you’re wondering why I chose a top 16, it’s because I had a top 15 – and then I saw the best film of the year so far with a week to go before the halfway point.


As always, there are films that I missed (or haven’t come out where I am yet), that I want to catch up on. These include American Animals, Angels Wear White, Claire’s Camera, Damsel, Dark River, Disobedience, Do You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, The Endless, Gemini, Golden Exits, The Guardians, Jeanette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, The King, Leave No Trace, Let the Sunshine In, Nancy, On Chesil Beach, RBG, The Seagull, Sicario: Day of the Soldado, Western, Where is Kyra?, Who We Are Now, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. I will try to see all of these when I get a chance.


Runners –Up: Beast (Michael Pearce) is a fascinating, disturbing movie with a great performance by Jessie Buckley as a young woman who may or may not be dating a serial killer – and what that unleashes in her. Chappaquiddick (John Curran) is a very good retelling of the moment that cost one young woman her life, and ruined Ted Kennedy’s Presidential aspirations – with a great Jason Clarke performance as Kennedy. Custody (Xavier Legand) is a harrowing French divorce drama that turns into an intense thriller in the final half hour – in which I don’t think I breathed. Game Night (John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein) is a great studio comedy that had me laughing start to finish – both times I watched it, with great performances by Rachel McAdams and Jesse Plemons. The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches (Simon Lavoie) is a dark, black and white Quebec drama, about religion and family trauma that keeps getting weirder. Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg) is Spielberg doing self-referencing in film that doesn’t result in one of his best films, but I do think it will be one of his most discussed (and The Shining sequence is downright brilliant). The Rider (Chloe Zhao) is a small, neo-realist drama about a rodeo cowboy with a brain injury, determined to come back, even if that’s not the smart thing to do – with people essentially playing versions of themselves in an understated, but heartfelt film. The Tale (Jennifer Fox) is a devastating film about childhood sexual abuse, and the lies we tell ourselves to deal with trauma – it should probably be higher, but it is a TV movie. Zama (Lucrecia Martel) is the type of film that will take multiple viewings, and perhaps years to fully unpack – a stunning achievement in many ways.


16. Lean on Pete (Andrew Haigh)

British director Andrew Haigh’s follow-up to the masterful drama 45 Years is this sad, episodic film about a 15 year old kid (Charley Plummer) who finds some kind of purpose in life when he gets a job assisting a somewhat sleazy horse trainer (Steve Buscemi). He has already lost his mother, and has been moved around by his father, who cannot keep a job. When everything comes to a head, he goes on a cross country journey. The film is sad and violent in places – and it contains one of the most shocking moments of any film this year – but it’s also full of humanity. I don’t know why it seems like European directors are more interested in America’s wide open spaces more than American directors are – but I’m glad they are, even if this film isn’t the masterful of Wenders’ Paris, Texas or Arnold’s American Honey – it deserves the comparisons.


15. Unsane (Steven Soderbergh)

Steven Soderbergh’s underrated thriller, shot on an iPhone, is this strange, claustrophobic film in which Claire Foy plays a woman who thinks she has escaped her stalker – starting a new life, in a new city – and then finds herself lock in a mental hospital, convinced one of the orderlies is that same stalker. No, the plot of the film isn’t really plausible – but it’s not really trying to be either. But it’s a daring film, with a great performance by Claire Foy – and the Blue Room sequence is among the best things Soderbergh has ever directed. It didn’t get the respect it deserved when it came out – but I have a feelings its reputation will grow.


14. Loveless (Andrey Zvyagintsev)

Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev’s follow-up to his masterpiece Leviathan isn’t quite the film that one was – but is close enough that it still shows why he is one of the best filmmakers in the world. The film is about two parents, who are divorcing, who are more concerned with their new relationships, their jobs, their status than they are about their own son – who in the first act goes missing. From there, the pair search – and eventually, they do become human characters, not caricatures of cruelty – even if they are self-involved assholes throughout, who by the end don’t seem to have learned anything. This is a another damning portrait of Putin’s Russia – not so shocking, his government has not been a fan of Zvyagintsev’s work, even if he never mentions Putin by name. The film is staggering and shocking and almost unrelentingly grim – but well worth the time.


13. Black Panther (Ryan Coogler)

One of the best Marvel movies to date, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther succeeds because while it still hits all the beats any fan of the MCU could possibly want it to, he still manages to make a film that fits right alongside his previous work in Fruitvale Station and Creed. The action in the film is top notch and in Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, Marvel has finally managed to create a memorable villain not named Loki (Jordan’s performance is one of the best of the year). It’s also an amazing feat of world building – Wakanda being one of the most iconic locations of the year so far. True, it still has to follow all the regular Marvel beats, and while Chadwick Boseman is still charismatic, he is basically the fifth most interesting character in the film, despite having the most screen time. If Marvel is going to continue to rule the world, at least give us more films like Black Panther – where talented filmmakers can make their own films, as well as keeping it a part of the larger whole.


12. Incredibles II (Brad Bird)

Brad Bird’s long waited for sequel to The Incredibles finally came out – 14 years after the original – and while that was too long, it was worth the wait. Incredibles II puts almost all live action movies to shame in its action sequences – they are fluid and exciting, and the pacing of the film is top notch – it moves incredibly fast, but still manages to deepen the characters and themes of the first film, and introduce new ones. The film is easily the best Pixar sequel – outside Toy Story 3 – and like Black Panther it shows that if we have to live in a world of constant sequels, they can at least feeling exciting and new – even if they aren’t. No, it doesn’t quite live up to the original – but so few films do, that this has to be considered a massive success for Pixar.


11. Tully (Jason Reitman)

One of the most realistic depictions of motherhood ever put on screen – all the horrors that come along with it, how exhausting and painful it can be – without completely discounting what is good about it. The third collaboration between Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody is less clever and jokey than Juno and less nihilistic than Young Adult (which remains the best of the three), the film gives Charlize Theron one of the best roles of her career – and she embraces it fully. It’s funny, sad, painful performance by Theron. She is matched by the great Mackenzie Davis (seriously, she’s going to be a huge star any day now – she already should be) as the so called Night Nanny who seems to be a gift from God and allows Theron to finally get some sleep and things start looking up. But these things are going to come to end, sooner or later. Tully didn’t do very well at the box office – that shouldn’t be too surprising, its target audience probably doesn’t get to the movies much, and if they do, they don’t want to see their lives up there on the screen. But this is a film that will grow in people’s mind for years to come. It’s a good rebound for Reitman – and a reminder of just how good Cody can be.


10. Revenge (Coralie Fargeat)

The rape/revenge film has a long, troubled history in horror – it’s mainly been used as titillation – an excuse for sexual violence against female character, but then you can claim you’re against it because of all the bloodletting the woman gets to do in the second half. French filmmaker Coralie Fargeat, making her stunning debut, has made one of the best the genre has seen – the film is truly horrifying, but also truly empowering – it doesn’t just pay lip service to it. It’s also bloody as hell, and one of the most entertaining films of the year so far – with a great performance by Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz who confronts three men, out in the middle of nowhere, once one of them rapes her, and they all leave her for dead (it’s also smart in that the different men are all different sorts of misogynists). I’m sorry this didn’t get much of a theatrical release – I saw it at TIFF last fall, and seeing it with an audience makes it even better. Don’t miss this one.


9. A Quiet Place (John Krasinski)

John Krasinski’s first foray into horror filmmaking is a masterfully directed movie about a world where monsters will kill you if you make any sound louder than a whisper – a family living alone on an isolated farm, trying to prepare for a new child, while grieving the child they lost. No, A Quiet Place isn’t a particularly deep film – but as pure horror filmmaking, it is masterful, using sound – and the lack thereof – to build suspense, and depending on a great performance by Emily Blunt to carry the film a long, long way. That the film became a surprise hit shouldn’t have been that shocking – it has a simple premise, brilliantly marketed, and then the movie delivered the goods. As straight ahead, mainstream horror, A Quiet Place is tough to beat.

8. The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci)

Ianucci’s long awaited second film isn’t quite the same genius level comedy of In the Loop – but it’s about as close as it could be. The film follows the behind the scenes maneuverings of all the upper level Soviet bureaucrats following Stalin’s death – but in typical Iannucci style, they are a mixture of idiots, sycophants and criminals – and also murderers. It’s the level of violence in the film that marks a departure of Iannucci – his characters are the same, but the death toll is different – so all those laughs stick in your throat a little bit more, and the whole thing leaves a knowingly bitter taste in your mouth. The brilliant ensemble cast is led by Steve Buscemi, giving his best performance in years, as Khrushchev and Simon Russell Beale as the ruthless Beria. The whole cast is great though in a comedy that makes you laugh – and makes you sick – both very much purposefully.


7. Thoroughbreds (Cory Finley)

When a playwright makes his debut film, it’s usually a wordy and often overwritten film – playwrights can make great directors, but they usually need to learn how to write and direct for a new medium. Not Cory Finley, who delivers a stunningly directed film his first time out. A fair of teenage girls (brilliantly played by Olivia Cooke and Anya-Taylor Joy) – who used to be friends, but have fallen out in recent years. Yet they come back together once again – when Joy enlists her more outwardly strange friend when she wants to kill her stepfather. What follows is an odd film, as the two friends push and pull each out – test each other out, enlist another to help (the late, great Anton Yelchin) – and then have to take things over themselves. The film is chilling and frightening – and also very funny, with great performances. The film keeps things at a chilly distance – the sound design is stunning. One of the best surprises of the year so far – and what would in most years be the best directorial debut.


6. Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson)

I will admit that the cultural insensitivity issues around Wes Anderson’s depiction of Japan in Isle of Dogs bothers me a little bit more now than it did at the time, even if I still believe the references were mainly loving, there are some decisions harder to defend (the white, America exchange student being the biggest one). Still while that makes Isle of Dogs problematic, it doesn’t (for me anyway) diminish all the great things that are in the film. It is still brilliantly animated – better than Fantastic Mr. Fox on that level anyway – and it’s also that blend of hilarious, heartfelt and emotional that only Anderson can pull off without becoming insufferably twee. The film is a love letter to our relationship with dogs – and yes, a love letter to Japanese cinema. Another triumph for Anderson – although one that I hope he learns from when he makes his next film.


5. Paddington 2 (Paul King)

Yes, Paddington 2 – a children’s film heavily inspired by Wes Anderson is better than the actual Wes Anderson film this year. This lovable sequel outdoes the original in almost every conceivable way (and that film was wonderful) – in part because it now doesn’t have to spend any time setting anything up, but rather can jump right in. The lovable bear from Peru, now in London, has become a beloved fixture in his neighborhood – but finds himself in jail, having been setup by the real bad guy – Hugh Grant, doing the best work of his career. But even that cannot get Paddington down, who turns the prison into yet another place he can turn around by just being himself. The film is a wonderful technical achievement – with a train sequence worthy of Buster Keaton, perhaps the best production design of the year, and a film that is simply a delight from beginning to end. In this world right now, where it seems like there is a different outrage every day, we can all learn from Paddington’s example “If you’re kind and polite, the world will be right”.


4. Hereditary (Ari Aster)

I’m not a fan of the term “elevated horror” that seems to be thrown around a lot this year in reference to the great horror films of recent years (The Babadook, It Follows, this one) – which seems to argue that horror films now are deeper than they used to be. That’s demonstrably false, as the horror genre has always addressed real world concerns from the beginning of the genre, and throughout time. With that out of the way, let me say that Hereditary is a truly special horror movie – a horror story about a family coming apart at the seams, and the pain and paranoia that is passed down generation to generation. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it – but I will say that Toni Collette delivers one of the best performances of the year as the mother in this film and debut director Ari Aster has crafted a truly terrifying movie, and done so without jump scares – it’s just slowly mounting terror and unease throughout. The ending is haunting, and I’m still processing it (does it work? – not sure – but it’s terrifying). A great horror film – and there is no need to come up with a stupid term like elevated horror to describe it. 


3. Annihilation (Alex Garland)

There was no more ambitious studio film this year than Annihilation, Alex Garland’s brilliant melding of science fiction and horror, which is almost like someone combined Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker and John Carpenter’s The Thing to come up with this unholy alliance of a mindfuck film. A group of five women scientist head into the “shimmer” – an area in the wilderness where others have ventured into, and no one has come back – save for one, who seems to have been changed. I won’t spoil anything more than that, but what I will say is that the performances by Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tuva Novotny as the women are great. Garland’s debut sci fi was the great Ex Machina, a small film, with one location, and only four real characters. Annihilation has a much wider viewpoint, and a more ambitious and strange one. The end of the film is a stunner. It’s not often you watch a film that you know will be talked about and debated for decades to come. This is one.


2. You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay)

In a more just movie world, the great Lynne Ramsay (whose previous films include Movern Callar and We Need to Talk About Kevin – both are brilliant) would be properly recognized among the best filmmakers in the world. Her latest film, which won two prizes at Cannes in 2017 for Joaquin Phoenix’s great lead performance, and the excellent screenplay. The real star of the film though may well be Ramsay’s direction. The story is a kind of riff on Taxi Driver – in which Phoenix plays a man whose job seems to be to save young women and girls who are being trafficked – and eliminate the traffickers in violent ways. Ramsay cuts the action down the bone, placing us inside the head of her disturbed protagonist on his latest assignment – one that goes bigger than he could have imagined. The result is a head-trip of a movie – a violent exploration of this man, and this world, that throws us deeper and deeper in. It’d a disturbing film, right down to the unforgettable final moments. A film whose reputation will grow for a long time to come.


1. First Reformed (Paul Schrader)

You could be forgiven if you had been writing off Paul Schrader for a while now – really, none of his films have really broken through since 1998’s Affliction, with the possible exception of The Canyons (2013) – which got a lot of attention, but for reasons not relating to its quality (I will say this, as someone who rewatched all of Schrader’s directorial work in the last two months – there is a lot of quality throughout his career – even the some of the latter ones, that have been mostly ignored). But Schrader’s latest film is his masterpiece – the best film he has ever directed, his most ambitious since Mishima, and the one that both summarizes his career best – and his influences. His story, of a Pastor who is already tumbling down into despair and hopelessness, before he tries to counsel an environmental activist, who doesn’t want to bring human life into a world we are destroying. From there, this version of Schrader’s favorite character – “God’s Lonely Man” spirals further down. The film is the most direct in Schrader’s career at addressing his influences – Dreyer, Bresson, Bergman, et al – while also being the one that taps into everything Schrader has down before – from Taxi Driver to Hardcore to Light Sleeper, etc. It is a quietly profound movie, with two stand out sequences – the floating and the ending – that will likely determine if, like me, you think the film is a stunning masterwork, or if you hate it. Schrader has always been one of the most interesting filmmakers working – even his bad films are interesting (except for Forever Mine) – and here, he’s done the best work of his career.

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