It’s hard to believe that we’re already at the midpoint of 2018. It seems like it was just yesterday I was lamenting that Phantom Thread would not be released locally by the end of 2017. I can still remember those unsure days when we didn’t yet know what havoc Thanos would wreak on the Avengers, or if the Justice League would survive Superman’s mustache woes. Just six months ago people were excited for the Roseanne reboot, a show which no longer even exists. Yes, it’s mid-June, a time which just weeks ago was predicted to be a Mad Max style post-Apocalyptic hellscape brought on entirely by the powerful combination of Eli Roth’s Death Wish and the announcement that Zack Snyder is interested in adapting The Fountainhead. Yet here we are, doing pretty well. One need only look at the movies of 2018 to see how things have been shifting for the better in ways that don’t typically draw clicks. Inclusivity is on the rise, as is the undeniably true notion that diversity in storytellers results in diversity of stories — a good thing for everyone and a bad thing for no one. MoviePass has helped to bring audiences back into the theater, while serving to educate filmgoers of their powers as a consumer. And distributors like A24 have worked to put to bed that utterly ridiculous notion that “they don’t make anything original anymore.”
Things can look bleak if you want them to, but it really is a great time to be alive. Especially if you like movies.
And I love movies! Which is why I wish to share with you my favorites from the first half of 2018. You can also hear Garrett, Jacob, and me talk about all our picks on the new episode of I Like to Movie Movie!
10. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Dir. Morgan Neville)
At a time where even the most forward thinking individuals will err on the side of bullying, this documentary about the life and times of Mister Rogers is absolutely essential. His message of kindness, love, and tolerance, even in the face of evil, is one that should be regularly reinstated. Filmmakers were granted unprecedented access to archival footage from behind the scenes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and it’s a pure delight to bask in the nostalgia on display. This film is pure hagiography - because it has to be. Fred Rogers’ closet is skeleton free.
9. The Cured (Dir. David Freyne)
I’ve been over the whole zombie thing for a decade now. Until The Cured came along, I’d have never believed that the genre had any room left for something new, let alone something so transcendent. This Irish thriller uses a simple concept (a cure is discovered for a zombie virus, with the catch that former zombies remember everything they did while under sway of the infection) and uses it to explore themes of class divide, racial divide, criminal rehabilitation, forgiveness, repentance, the list goes on. In addition, The Cured functions wonderfully as a slick, hardcore horror flick. One look at the poster will have most moviegoers ready to dismiss it as old hat, but I assure you that the opposite is true.
8. Upgrade (Dir. Leigh Whannell)
Most throwback genre pictures tend to find value through homage, and while Upgrade isn’t NOT doing that, the true value here comes from something much deeper. This Cronenbergian body horror/sci-fi/actioner is not interested in winking and nodding its way through metatextual material and instead taps directly into what makes its stylistic predecessors such a success. If we went back in time and deposited this into my childhood video store, it would be right at home. Logan Marshall-Green puts in a tremendous physical performance as a man whose body is gruesomely dispatching villains, but whose face wants nothing to do with it. Behind it all is a very clever science fiction concept that invokes concerns about the dangerous of technology without limits. The action is shot in a novel new way that defies description. Upgrade is everything that made me love movies in the first place, but with a modern sheen.
7. Mute (Dir. Duncan Jones)
Detractors lament that Jones has yet to follow up on the promise of his debut film Moon, but I think they’re looking for the wrong sort of thing. Mute, his Blade Runner-esque tech-noir exhibits Jones as a filmmaker of tremendous imagination and talent, who isn’t content to be married to one particular style. I suspect that with time, critical reception of Mute will skew positive, and I have no problem carrying the torch until then. Plot-wise, this is a churning slow burn, with little by way of resolution, but that’s not why we’re here. We’re here to see the density with which the world of Mute is constructed, and to watch the individual arcs of an all-star ensemble. Alexander Skarsgard is an actor who has such a notable look that it’s often hard to read the nuances of his performances, but his portrayal of a completely silent character highlights how capable he is. Oh and I’ll say it: this is a career best for Paul Rudd.
6. The Death of Stalin (Dir. Armando Iannucci)
If ever Steve Buscemi deserved an Oscar, it’s for his hilarious depiction of Nikita Khrushchev during the days after the untimely death of Joseph Stalin. As he and his comrades try to iron out the succession of power during a turbulent political turnover, Iannucci mines comedy from the tightrope walk being performed by a group of dopey, greedy men. They each want to seize as much power as possible, all the while maintaining (in a performative sense) the best interests of the state, with full knowledge that even the slightest misstep could result in a dispassionate assassination. The comedy is slower paced than Iannucci’s previous work, but it’s no less biting or hilarious. This deliberate pacing showcases a maturity from one of our generation’s greatest satirists. I can’t wait to watch this movie with a pause button, since I know that at I missed much of the humor while I laughed myself into an oxygen deprived state.
5. You Were Never Really Here (Dir. Lynne Ramsay)
Based on the novel of the same name, Lynne Ramsay’s bleak film meditates on redemption (vengeance? narcissism?) by presenting itself, at least in marketing material, as Joaquin Phoenix’s Taken. But when the movie begins, it becomes clear that this is so much more. First off, almost none of what we see on screen can be believed, as Phoenix’s Joe is one of the most compelling unreliable narrators in cinema history, but all of it is based in the moment to moment truth of each player, and all of it speaks to some dirty, relatable truths to which anyone who has ever made a mistake can speak. Ramsay smartly keeps the bulk of the violence off screen, and almost all of the exposition sits silently in the wings. This is masterful stuff from a master filmmaker. It may sound like I’m being vague, but that’s really the only way to talk about such a personal film - one which is sure to be personal to every individual viewer. This is not a passive watch. Put yourself into it. Engage it. Try not to be too horrified at what comes out.
4. First Reformed (Dir. Paul Schrader)
What if Paul Schrader, with decades of added wisdom, decided to remake Taxi Driver with himself behind the lens? This is an angry, personal film, but one that is ultimately lined with a sort of perverse hope. When doing right is consistently a losing battle, it’s easy to see how so many well-intentioned people find themselves chasing catharsis instead of fighting for progress. By setting this story in the church community, Schrader pivots the “lost to the point of violence” aspect into an exploration of martyrdom, and the cleansing tonic of hitting rock bottom. Ethan Hawke throws his guts onto the table in every single scene, proving that he’s one of the all-time greats, while Cedric the Entertainer earns his title. First Reformed is an out and out masterpiece, and it’s one that is sure to grow in thematic density with each passing year.
3. Hereditary (Dir. Ari Aster)
Ari Aster’s debut film deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Halloween, The Shining, The Exorcist, It Follows, and any in a small club of horror masterworks. It’s perfect in every way and it pulls no punches in shoving its audience into a state of unrelenting terror. It’s certainly not for everyone, nor should it be, but horror junkies who crave a meaty, deeply unsettling experience simply can’t do better. Part of the hype machine surrounding this film involved placing Toni Collette into the Oscar conversation almost by sheer force of will, but the hype is real. Collette should absolutely be in contention for Best Actress. You know who else should be considered? Literally every member of the principal cast. The music, too, deserves awards love, as does the stark, oaky cinematography. As of this writing, I have only seen the film once, but I am confident that repeat viewings will only deepen my love for such an astonishing piece of cinema, while shining light on the film’s many secrets... resulting in even more questions. This is why I movie.
2. Annihilation (Dir. Alex Garland)
Perhaps the texted words of our own Ryan Silberstein can best describe Alex Garland’s mind-boggling sophomore film: “Yo. That movie FUCKS.”
Yes, yes it does. It fucks HARD.
Annihilation is the type of 2001-esque, super heady science fiction that molds itself to speak to whatever the audience puts into it. Whatever internal issues you seek to work out, Annihilation will help beat them into something workable, so long as you let it. The first quarter of 2018 was a difficult time for me, and for reasons I won’t go into, I went into my second viewing of Annihilation with a ton of baggage. By the third act, I was a sobbing mess. At the time, certain beliefs that I’ve lived my whole life thinking were un-malleable were being challenged, and the way that this film spoke to the destructive aspects of change - and the rewards of giving in to such opportunities for growth - eviscerated me. For a few hours after it ended I demanded to be alone, locked myself in my room, and thought longer and harder about who I am, what I stand for, and what I’m capable of if I can just make peace with the notion of impermanence. I know this probably makes no sense to you (and I really can’t be more specific), but never have I gone into a movie and received such a necessary, unexpected, and thorough re-wiring of the way I think. If I ever meet Alex Garland in person, I will have to thank him. I needed this, and I am a better person because of it.
It’s also a whizz banger of a science fiction piece. This is one of those movies which will serve as the stylistic DNA for countless films to follow. Heck, even the trailer for Venom is already aping the sound design from Annihilation’s final haunting moments.
It should be noted too that this is an almost entirely female cast, with a large spectrum of race being represented. And it’s not made into a thing. It’s just the best people for the job. Love it.
- A Quiet Place (Dir. John Krasinksi)
Despite having one of the cruelest and most gut-wrenchingly effective opening scenes of recent memory, A Quiet Place defies horror logic by being steeped in pure, wholesome love. I’m sure this a partially due to the fact that the two lead adults are real life family, but it’s also due to a wonderful script, and an incredible supporting cast, including Millicent Simmonds, a young actress who, much like the character she portrays, is deaf. This little piece of inclusivity is not tokenistic in any way, as her lack of hearing is at the center of the film’s plot AND themes. In a world where even the smallest sound can get you gruesomely and instantly killed, a family which is versed in sign language is one that can not just survive, but potentially thrive. A disability becomes a strength.
Krasinski’s direction is so assured, so functional, that it’s easy to miss the incredible artistry on display. This is the type of film that envelopes even the most resistant viewer - not an easy task. Repeat viewings highlight moments of cinematic flair, but as an entertainment, as an experience, A Quiet Place is low-key hypnotic. To quote the God figure from Futurama: “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.”
The monsters are extremely well designed. When they finally appear in full detail it doesn’t derail the film. This should be impossible. It also includes one of the best needle drops I’ve ever seen employed in a movie. Ooooh and that final shot... LEGEND.