Film

With 2018 Halfway Over, Here Are the Best Films of the Year So Far

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2018 may be turning out to be a miserable year on just about every front, but at least it’s been a good one for cinema. Now that we’ve passed the halfway point for this annus horribilis, it’s worth taking a look at the films that have stood out so far. With one notable exception, this list only includes pictures that have received a theatrical release in the first six months of the year. There are several outstanding movies from Cannes and Sundance that will come out later this year — titles like Alice Rohrwacher’s Lazzaro Felice and Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline and Gaspar Noé’s Climax, to cite just three examples — and those have not been included. Here, in rough order starting with the best, are my favorite films of the year so far.

The Rider (Chloé Zhao)

“ ‘You’re on big old Gus again. Loping across the prairie, feel the wind on your face, chasing them cows out of the trees. You excited? You bet, brother.’ A horseman says this to another near the end of Chloé Zhao’s The Rider, the dreamy vision full of both hope and melancholy. For the young cowboys at the heart of Zhao’s film, mounting a horse and galloping across a field represents more than just freedom — it becomes a communion with the past and the future, allowing these riders to imagine and inhabit their best selves. And there’s the rub: The movie’s about what happens when you can’t ride anymore. These lines are spoken in an antiseptic hospital room, by one broken boy to another.” — from my review

You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay)

“As depicted by Ramsay’s frenetic, staccato editing style, Joe does not think in linear fashion. His mind is a tangle of memories and flash-forwards and what-ifs, all rendered in short, sharp, shock cuts.… Standing on a train platform or drinking from a water fountain, he sees young women looking at him through dead or wounded eyes. Are they just pointedly posed bystanders, accusing specters from his past, or ghosts of failures yet to come?” — from my review

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (Travis Wilkerson)

“ ‘Trust me when I tell you that this isn’t another white savior story. This is a white nightmare story,’ Wilkerson proclaims right at the opening, and he’s not lying. Working his way through home movies, documentary footage, photographs, interviews, narration, and text, he tells us about his great-grandfather, S.E. Branch, shooting and killing in 1946 a black man by the name of Bill Spann who had come into Branch’s small store.… This is also a movie about haunted places, and Wilkerson’s specters reconnect us with one of the sources of Americans’ fascination with ghost stories — the sense that beneath our feet and behind our walls lurks a history filled with horror, hate, and slaughter, and that, if conjured the right way, it might all return some day.” — from my review

First Reformed (Paul Schrader)

“My first reaction was how few scripts I read are really the work of a writer. When you read Paul Schrader’s script, he’s given voice to something that’s on the tip of all of our tongues. The movie is giving voice to this anxiety I think I was feeling inside but didn’t have any way to articulate. And this character made it manifest.… You’re really aware while you’re watching it that the architecture has been carefully built. No shot seems like it could’ve possibly gone on a second longer or cut a second sooner. It’s made with a razor blade.” — from Lara Zarum’s interview with Ethan Hawke

The Green Fog (Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, and Galen Johnson)

“[A] delirious reconstruction of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, created out of hundreds of clips from movies and shows shot in the Bay Area that were very much not Vertigo.… Maddin has made a career out of mining the latent tensions of mainstream cinema, often by pushing the styles and attitudes of classical filmmaking to absurdist extremes. This time, playing with existing footage, he and his collaborators do something similar, but the effect is more subtle, and in its own way more expansive. We watch clips and clips of men communing across restaurant tables, with all the dialogue parts removed, and the silent, tense exchanges start to gain a sexual charge — as if every form of human interaction has suddenly been reduced to a series of secret impulses and desires. Lust, repression, voyeurism, and narcissism all turn out to be part of the same spectrum: Men watch women from cars, in restaurants, across rooms, on screens — just as Jimmy Stewart watched Kim Novak in Hitchcock’s original, and as we do whenever we watch Vertigo. But they also watch other men. And sometimes they watch themselves.” — from my review

Leave No Trace (Debra Granik)

“America is convulsing, and this story is bringing up these hard-hitter ideas. What do we need to be happy? Can we be happy with less? There are obvious references to Walden, and in an era that’s busting out so violently, it felt like a real treat to be able to contemplate [Henry David] Thoreau for a minute, an American who thought differently a long time ago. There used to be nonconforming Americans who were seeking out something else. I want to be spending time in that world for a minute. I want to be immersed.” — from April Wolfe’s interview with Granik (You can read my review here.)

The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci)

“It’s all so simultaneously fucking horrible and hilarious that any question of whether it’s OK to laugh at this stuff — which, sadly, is the kind of question that gets asked these days — becomes moot. As Stanley Kubrick did with Dr. Strangelove, Iannucci has built a satire not by twisting the truth but by nudging reality just a few inches further in the direction it was already going. It should not be incumbent on people of good sense to hold their laughter in the face of such absurd evil. If anything, laughter should be a requirement — because only in well-observed ridicule can we sometimes find a power strong enough to put such monsters in their places.” — from my review (You can read Lara Zarum’s interview with Iannucci here.)

Where Is Kyra? (Andrew Dosunmu)

“There has always been an air of loneliness about Michelle Pfeiffer onscreen. Even in her glamorous, gorgeous movie-star heyday, she often played women who were somewhat removed from the world.… I hadn’t fully realized this until I saw Andrew Dosunmu’s marvelous, shattering Where Is Kyra?, in which the actress is often the sole figure onscreen, playing a New York woman sliding deeper into poverty and despair. Although the film might seem a departure for her — and at least in terms of budget, it certainly is — watching it, I felt that Dosunmu had connected to something elemental within Pfeiffer, that solitude that brought subtle dimension to her earlier, more famous roles. This is the kind of part, and the kind of performance, that makes you see an actor’s entire career in a new light. And it’s probably the best she’s ever been.” — from my review (You can read my interview with Dosunmu here.)

Three Identical Strangers (Tim Wardle)

[No quote included because you really should see this movie without knowing anything about it. Thank me later.]

The Party (Sally Potter)

“Today, there seems to be such a quest for absolute moral certainty and clarity. We see people as either misogynist or they’re not, either racist or they’re not, and so on and so on, and there’s been a great retreat from nuance and complexity — from the fact that most people are a mix and full of uncertainty. I wanted to explore that idea of the gap between what people think they are and how they actually behave in a crisis situation. But most importantly, I wanted to do it all in the service of laughter, the cathartic power of laughter.” — from my interview with Potter (You can read April Wolfe’s review here.)

Tully (Jason Reitman)

“[Diablo] Cody often employs a third-act surprise, but with Tully she reveals a downright Shyamalanian capacity for alienating an audience with a major plot twist. She presents it as a challenge for viewers to treat the story of a woman re-evaluating her life with the same seriousness as they would a mathematician tackling an unsolvable equation — and it works. Tully encapsulates the psychological process of maturity with pithy humor and vertiginous insight.” — from Serena Donadoni’s review

Game Night (John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein)

“Mark Perez has written one of the tightest comedy scripts to make it to the big screen in ages. Game Night, directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, wastes not a single second of dialogue, gives killer lines to every member of its all-star ensemble, delivers genuinely tense action sequences, and even goes for broke with style. Do we finally have an American counterpart to Britain’s Edgar Wright–Simon Pegg team?” — from April Wolfe’s review

The Workers Cup (Adam Sobel)

“The unnerving paradox at the heart of The Workers Cup extends to the viewer as well. On the one hand, I felt myself rooting for the GCC team, as the film eases its way into something resembling a sports movie; on the other hand, we see the system in which GCC operates. Sobel lets these conflicting feelings hang in the air, offering no pat conclusions, or convenient corporate bogeymen. By refusing to resolve or reconcile these contradictions, he ensures that we’ll keep thinking about them.” — from my review

Nancy (Christina Choe)

“[Andrea] Riseborough’s great accomplishment is anchoring the comic dimension of her character with an undercurrent of gentle melancholy. I say ‘anchoring’ because the sadness both sells and tempers the comedy, turning her from a potential object of ridicule (or pity) into an object of fascination. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from Nancy’s submerged anxiety. Riseborough manages a preternatural stillness while letting her eyes dart around with almost surreal speed — during one close-up I could have sworn that the film had jump-cut to a different close-up, but no, that was just the speed with which she’d managed to shift expressions.” — from my review

Paddington 2 (Paul King)

“The contemporary blockbuster talks a good game about compassion and mercy, but it still mostly panders to our bloodlust and rage. One reason to go to the movies is to unwind, sure, but we also want to indulge in fantasy and wish fulfillment, often about getting even — and woe unto the movie that denies us such simple, petty pleasures. Which is why in today’s studio firmament — even among that softer genre of family-friendly fare — the Paddington films stand out. Both 2015’s Paddington and now its sequel, Paddington 2, embody a kind of extreme empathy. They have their moments of spectacle — laugh-out-loud sight gags and genuinely exciting set pieces — but they’re also dominated by an overwhelming sense of kindness. They make us yearn to be better humans rather than badder badasses, and in today’s world, that feels downright radical.” — from my review

And since I have no fucking clue when — or if — this film will ever get a theatrical release…

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (Terry Gilliam)

“The very real possibility — maybe even the probability — of catastrophic failure clearly excites Gilliam; he makes almost no concessions to what is expected of him, or what might please contemporary audiences. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote bears the hallmarks of this director at his broadest, nuttiest, and most extreme, with unhinged performances, overt symbolism, and a cacophonous story that has the logic of a thousand dreams happening simultaneously. It is an uncompromising work that will make many viewers frustrated and even furious. I adored pretty much every single glorious, gorgeous goddamn minute of it.” — from my review

 

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