You asked for it. Wait, did you? Well, you’ve got it: the best films of the first half of 2018. A great mix of blockbuster and indie, foreign and domestic, action, drama, comedy, SciFi and horror. The second half of the year has a lot to live up to!
Alex Garland’s work as both a writer (28 Days Later…, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go) and a writer/director (Ex Machina) has shown a visionary talent for molding the other-worldly and the familiar. Annihilation unveils Garland at his most existential, becoming an utterly absorbing sci-fi thriller where each answer begs more questions.
A strange force of nature dubbed “The Shimmer” has enveloped the land near a remote lighthouse, and is spreading. Years of expeditions inside it have yielded only missing persons – including Kane (Oscar Issac). When Kane suddenly returns home and almost immediately falls prey to a life-threatening illness, his wife Lena (Natalie Portman, perfectly nailing a desperate curiosity) is detained for questioning by the military.
Garland builds the film in wonderful symmetry with the hybrid life forms influenced by The Shimmer. Taking root as a strange mystery, it offers satisfying surprises amid an ambitious narrative flow full of intermittent tension, scares, and blood—and a constant sense of wonder.
Just his second feature as a director, Annihilation proves Ex Machina was no fluke. Garland is pondering similar themes—creation, self-destruction, extinction—on an even deeper level, streamlining the source material into an Earthbound cousin to 2001.
9. The Rider
The classic western sings a song of bruised manliness. Chasing destiny, sacrificing family and love for a solitary life, building a relationship with land and beast—there may be no cinematic genre more full of romance.
This is the hardscrabble poetry that fills writer/director Chloe Zhao’s latest, The Rider.
But what Zhao’s film avoids is sentimentality and sheen. With a hyper-realistic style showcasing performances by non-actors, she simultaneously celebrates and inverts the romance that traditionally fuels this kind of film.
Elegant and cinematic, but at the same time a spontaneous work of verite, The Rider breaks its own cinematic ground.
Zhao’s work is unmistakably indie, not a born crowd-pleaser, but beautifully lifelike. She has given new life to a genre, creating a film about the loss of purpose and, in that manly world of the cowboy, masculinity.
Gracefully adapting Naomi Alderman’s novel, Sebastian Lelio (A Fantastic Woman, Gloria) continues his interest in stories of women struggling to be free and live as their true selves, exerting their power to disobey.
Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola are all wonderful, crafting resonant characters as Lelio slowly builds the drama of a conflicting, scandalous triangle. Little backstory is provided early on, giving more weight to pieces that are picked up from characters carefully dancing around old wounds.
The message is love and mercy, and how these basic tenets of religion are often forgotten in the name of enforcing a preferred social order. Lelio and his committed actors make it intensely intimate but never salacious, a parable with a powerful grip.
7. The Death of Stalin
Opening with a madcap “musical emergency” and closing with a blood-stained political coup, The Death of Stalin infuses its factual base with coal-back humor of the most delicious and absurd variety.
The film cements director/co-writer Armando Iannucci (Veep, In the Loop) as a premier satirist, as it plays so giddily with history while constantly poking you with a timeliness that should be shocking but sadly is not.
So many feels are here, none better than the sheer joy of watching this film unfold.
It is Moscow in the 1950s and we meet Josef Stalin and his ruling committee, with nary an actor even attempting a Russian accent. Those British and American dialects set a wonderfully off-kilter vibe.
It all flows so fast and furiously funny, it’s easy to forget how hard it is to pull off such effective satire. We end up laughing through a dark and brutal time in history, while Iannuci speaks truth to those currently in power with a sharp and savage brand of mockery.
From its opening shot – a slow, dizzying swirl above a patterned kitchen floor – Foxtrot commits to a cornerstone of disorientation. Through both narrative and camerawork, writer/director Samuel Maoz keeps you off balance as he constructs a deep, moving dive into one family’s struggle with loss and regret.
Maoz’s visuals, sometimes anachronistic, bold and darkly funny, are never less than fascinating. His writing is incisive and brilliantly layered, confidently moving toward a shattering finale without stopping to worry about whether you’re connecting every loose end.
Just when you may think you know where Maoz is going, you don’t. But the rug isn’t pulled by cheap gimmickry or emotional manipulation, but rather perfectly arranged pieces assembled by deeply affecting performances.
Like its namesake, a dance that will always lead you to “end up in the same place,” Foxtrot can be viewed from different angles with equal impact. You might see a sociopolitical statement on the filmmaker’s home country, a universal parable on the costs of war, or a starkly intimate take on family bonds.
Directing his first feature, Cory Finley adapts his play about teenage girls planning a murder. It’s a buddy picture, a coming-of-age tale, Superbad, if you will. No, not really.
Wicked, surprising, unapologetic, cynical and buoyed by flawless performances, Thoroughbreds is a mean little treat.
Olivia Cooke mystifies, her observant but emotionally disinterested performance a magical thing to witness. Her Amanda has nearly perfected the art of pretending to be normal, pretending to care.
The fact that Anya Taylor-Joy’s Lily can see the advantage of this is what sets this coming-of-age tale apart from others.
If Cooke is great, Taylor-Joy is better. An actor who wears her vulnerability in her every expression, she gives great depth to this character on the precipice of adulthood, learning, as she must, that to prosper in her world you need to rid yourself of human emotions and replace them with acceptably false facsimiles.
It’s a fascinating look at how the other class comes of age, blackly comedic and biting.
4. A Quiet Place
Damn. John Krasinski. That big, tall guy, kind of doughy-faced? Married to Emily Blunt? Dude can direct the shit out of a horror movie.
Krasinski plays the patriarch of a close-knit family trying to survive the post-alien-invasion apocalypse by staying really, really quiet. The beasts use sound to hunt, but the family is prepared. The cast, anchored by Krasinski’s on-and-off-screen wife Emily Blunt is amazing. That you may expect.
What you may not expect is Krasinski’s masterful direction: where and when the camera lingers or cuts away, how often and how much he shows the monsters, when he decides the silence will generate the most dread and when he chooses to let Marco Beltrami’s ominous score do that work for him.
It’s smart in the way it’s written, sly in its direction and spot-on in its ability to pile on the mayhem in the final reel without feeling gimmicky or silly.
3. You Were Never Really Here
Two killers lie on a kitchen floor, gently singing along as the radio plays “I’ve Never Been to Me,” surely one of the cheesiest songs of all time. Only one of the men will get up.
It’s a fascinating sequence, one of many in Lynne Ramsay’s bloody and beautiful You Were Never Really Here. She adapts Jonathan Ames’s brisk novella into a dreamy, hypnotic fable, an in-the-moment pileup of Taxi Driver, Taken and Drive.
Joaquin Phoenix delivers an intensely powerful performance as Joe, a combat veteran whose been wounded in various ways. Joe lives with his mother in suburban New York, whetting his appetite for violence as a vigilante for hire who specializes in rescuing kidnapped girls and exacting brutal justice.
Together, Ramsay and Phoenix ensure nearly each of the film’s 89 minutes burns with a spellbinding magnetism. While Phoenix lets you inside Joe’s battered psyche just enough to want more, Ramsay’s visual storytelling is dazzling. Buoyed by purposeful editing and stylish soundtrack choices, Ramsay’s wonderfully artful camerawork (kudos to cinematographer Thomas Townend) presents a stream of contrasts: power and weakness, brutality and compassion, celebration and degradation.
Grief and guilt color every somber, shadowy frame of writer/director Ari Aster’s unbelievably assured feature film debut, Hereditary.
With just a handful of mannerisms, one melodic clucking noise, and a few seemingly throwaway lines, Aster and his magnificent cast quickly establish what will become nuanced, layered human characters, all of them scarred and battered by family.
Art and life imitate each other to macabre degrees while family members strain to behave in the manner that feels human, seems connected, or might be normal. What is said and what stays hidden, what’s festering in the attic and in the unspoken tensions within the family, it’s all part of a horrific atmosphere meticulously crafted to unnerve you.
Aster takes advantage of a remarkably committed cast to explore family dysfunction of the most insidious type. Whether his supernatural twisting and turning amount to metaphor or fact hardly matters with performances this unnerving and visual storytelling this hypnotic.
1. Black Panther
Just when you’ve gotten comfortable with the satisfying superhero origin story at work, director/co-writer Ryan Coogler and a stellar ensemble start thinking much bigger. And now, we need to re-think what these films are capable of.
Not a minute of the film is wasted. Coogler manages to pack each with enough backstory, breathless action, emotional heft and political weight to fill three films.
The cast shines from the top down.Chadwick Boseman, all gravitas and elegance, offers the picture perfect king. And is there anyone more effortlessly badass than Danai Gurira? No. Her General Okoye is here for the beat down.
Lupita Nyong’o is also characteristically excellent in the role of the conscience-driven liberal. In a scene where she expects Gurira’s general to commit what amounts to treason, Coogler expertly reinforces an amazingly well-crafted theme mirrored in other pairings: the friction between surviving by force or by conscience.
This theme is most clearly outlined by the conflict between Boseman’s King T’Challa and his new nemesis, Jordan’s Killmonger.
Michael B. Jordan, people.
Coogler hands this actor all of the most difficult lines. Why? Because it is material a lesser actor would choke on, and Jordan delivers like a perfectly placed gut punch. He sets the screen on fire, and though every single performance in this film is excellent, Jordan exposes the artifice. His castmates are in a Marvel superhero movie. Jordan is not. Instead, he is this rage-filled, broken, vengeful man and he is here to burn this world to the ground.
Coogler works with many of these basic themes found in nearly any comic book film—daddy issues, becoming who you are, serving others—but he weaves them into an astonishing look at identity, radicalization, systemic oppression, uprising and countless other urgent yet tragically timeless topics. The writing is layered and meaningful, the execution visionary.