Killmonger, monstrous bears, Russian dictators, and an island of talking dogs. We’ve reached the midway point of 2018, so it is time to take a look at the films that have stood out so far. Here’s a list of the film’s I’ve most enjoyed, thought about, and found meaning in for the first half of the year. There’s still plenty to come, but it’s nice to put together something like this for the sake of my own perspective. Additionally, I also have a list of my favorite movie moments from so far this year. Be cautious of spoilers when looking at that section, but I was happy to go through and assemble an additional list collecting some of my favorite scenes, quotes or otherwise from a variety of films. Enjoy!
For a year that’s already featured a few quality horror releases, Hereditary is the one that’s left the most significant impact on me. Perhaps it is due to unrelenting dread that takes place throughout the film. Or it may have to do with the family drama element being just as compelling as the horror. Either way, there’s a well-directed film here that establishes Ari Aster as a filmmaker to watch. There’s also a powerhouse performance from Toni Collette and excellent support from Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, and Ann Dowd. For a film that predictably did not go over well with crowds (it’s not a happy movie), Hereditary did plenty to continue to show me how much faith I can put into the various genre films A24 wants to put out there.
Speaking of moody films, Alex Garland wasn’t about to deliver a straightforward Alien (or whatever) invasion story when presented with Jeff VanderMeer’s novel. While Garland decided to handle Annihilation as a loose adaptation, he delivered an incredibly engrossing and atmospheric journey into darkness. Natalie Portman shows plenty of confidence on screen, as she journeys through all sorts of danger with the accompanying female cast. Adding onto this unique journey is the presence of nightmarish imagery, such as the scariest bear I’ve ever seen, some of the worst home videos to come across, and an ending sequence that really goes for the surreal.
For all the films based on plays I’ve been critical of for not embracing the cinematic nature of film well enough, here’s a script initially meant for the stage that honestly comes alive on film, as a confined, wickedly sharp black comedy. Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy are terrific as upper-class high schoolers that have moved in opposite directions but find themselves developing their former friendship once again when considering the prospects of murder as a way to solve their problems. Anton Yelchin is also great in (sadly) his final onscreen performance. And for all the limited work to stray outside a few locations, writer/director Cory Finley makes subtle use of what he has to create striking imagery through great visuals and strategic staging.
While some Pixar sequels seemed to elicit less excitement in recent years, The Incredibles has always been a film that so naturally lent itself to more adventures with the Parr family. Thankfully, writer/director Brad Bird didn’t let 14 years go by without considering what kind of steps to make in putting together a film that’s exciting, funny, action-packed, and relevant. In an age where superheroes dominate a lot of the entertainment news cycle, Incredibles 2 picks up the ball and roles with it by way of a solid adventure picking up right where things left off and bringing new layers to the characters many loved the first time around. The voice cast continues to be great and thanks to the amount of time between films, this has to be one of the most impressive CG-animated films out there regarding all that is accomplished by way of innovative action and more.
6. First Reformed
Paul Schrader is more prolific than you may think as a director, but First Reformed is undoubtedly his most notable effort in a good long while. Ethan Hawke gives what may be his best performance, in a career full of interesting roles, as a priest of a small congregation at a novelty church, who is grappling with personal tragedy and newfound concerns for what people are doing to the world. Taking on a far more stylish handle of his direction than one tends to see from a veteran filmmaker, Schrader does all he can to push forward the concept of despair that Hawke must contend with. It’s hard not to reference Schrader’s script for Taxi Driver when looking at this film, but he’s certainly drawn from previous works of his own, let alone inspiration from directors ranging from Bergman to Tarkovsky, while once again working through his struggles with religion. The key is keeping it so character-focused, as we watch a character suffer, rather than feel like we are being lectured.
5. Isle of Dogs
Wes Anderson’s latest display of stop-motion craft once again finds him balancing melancholy with idiosyncratic characters for the sake of a whimsical adventure made up of nonsensical ideas that somehow all click. While sensitive to the notion that Japanese representation was something of an issue in how Anderson chose to handle a film about dogs that have had their barks translated into English, it would be hard for me not to look at all the work Anderson and his team did to honor Japanese culture in ways very fitting for his films. Problematic elements aside, I was thoroughly engaged by this dogpocalyptic story of a boy’s journey to find his lost friend, while accompanied by a ragtag group of canines, all fit with their own distinctive personalities. It clicked for me in the same way each of Anderson’s films has and I was more than just pleased by that.
The fantastic thing about The Death of Stalin is knowing that many real events had to be toned down to make a more succinct and believable comedy. While one could read about what took place during the final days of the infamous Soviet dictator and the power struggle that followed, there’s plenty of entertainment and laughs to be had at director Armando Iannucci’s take on history. Crackling with wit and not above going for true slapstick humor, here’s a film that plays as something as clever as a Marx Brothers comedy and as wickedly dark as Dr. Strangelove. Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, and Michael Palin are just a few of the considerable talents on hand to portray various senior members of the Council of Ministers, and they are all more than game to really go for it in a film that hits all the right beats.
3. You Were Never Really Here
You think the idea of a new arthouse revenge thriller about a white guy punishing those that harm women would feel a bit redundant after a while, but various filmmakers keep finding ways to impress me. Lynne Ramsay took a script by Jonathan Ames and made a haunting yet beautiful film about a tragic character. Played with the expected intensity by Joaquin Phoenix, his traumatized Joe wanders through the world, handling business in a manner he deems necessary, only to have real nightmares placed on top of the ones he is already suffering from. This means watching a quick 90-minute film full of striking imagery and total control over tone. It’s a tremendous technical achievement on top of being quite the cerebral experience.
Ryan Coogler has entered the world of big-budget blockbusters, and he has easily come out ahead. It’s not just the fact that Black Panther became a global phenomenon, but that it does everything so well, while still committing to having a message to share and feel as encouraging as any film about superheroes fighting for what’s right should. Coogler made Black Panther a personal project and even when the film goes big with all the typical elements of an MCU film, it continues to stand out thanks to its terrific cast and team of filmmakers working to make something special. The result is a big movie that celebrates African culture and comments on African American culture in a way that is entertaining and powerful.
1. Paddington 2
Just the announcement of a Paddington movie had me unmoved by the thought that another childhood story would become a mess of CG characters and bland humor. Not only was I pleasantly surprised by 2014’s Paddington, I now have a sequel that surpasses the first film and continues to stand out as one of the most purely entertaining movies I have seen all year, let alone the sort of treat anyone can get into and just feel better about things afterward. Director Paul King seems to have everything under control as far as bringing this lovable bear to life, but he doesn’t miss out on creating a fantastic supporting cast that all get to contribute as well. In addition to Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, and other returning cast members, this film adds on a terrific Hugh Grant and Brendan Gleeson to go all out in presenting a film so gleefully humorous, as well as touching, and magical in its own way.
Runners Up: American Animals, Beast, The Endless, First Match, The Rider, Tully, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Favorite Movie Moments So Far:
10. The Death of Stalin – Orchestra Recording, Take 2
While there was a lot to consider as far as which scenes made me laugh the most, including Rupert Friend’s hysterical work as Stalin’s son and Jason Isaacs big entrance as General Zhukov, I have to speak up for the opening moments of the film. Paddy Considine’s character is tasked to record the live performance of an orchestra that had just finished, meaning he has to bring the whole audience back and force the band to play the entire concert again. The amount of work that goes into him pulling all of this off was a great way to set the stage for all the lunacy to come.
9. You Were Never Really Here – I’ve Never Been To Me
Amidst all the chaos taking place, there’s an utterly bizarre yet poignant scene where Joe is getting back at one of the men trying to kill him. As the assassin lays on the floor dying, Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been To Me” begins playing on the television, and Joe lies on the ground, holding the man’s hand, as they both sing the song together. It’s strange, yet it all fits together.
8. Damsel – Death While Relieving One’s Self
The western comedy from the Zellner brothers has its share of funny moments, but one that stuck with me was the death of a particular character. Without going too far into who is being dispatched, a character is shot while relieving himself outside. As he falls down…the body functions haven’t stopped working, providing for quite the macabre image. It also happens to be hilarious.
7. The Strangers: Prey at Night – Pool Party
It took ten years to get a sequel to The Strangers, which is odd for a horror film, let alone one that was more successful than the average slasher, but here we are. While the film doesn’t leave quite the impact the original did, it has one standout sequence that rivals some of the best kill-or-be-killed sequences in a lot of movies like it in recent years. The sequence involves careful staging, a unique location, and a pop song blaring in the background. Director Johannes Roberts has already established how much he wants to evoke Carpenter and 80s horror in general, but this sequence is easily the creative peak of his powers.
6. Incredibles 2 – Motorcycle Chase
A lot of my enjoyment of Incredibles 2 came from seeing the film do such a great job of finding clever ways to utilize the various abilities of the different supers. That is put on grand display for the big motorcycle chase, as Holy Hunter’s Elastigirl chases after a speeding monorail train on her new motorcycle. Motorcycle chases are already cool enough, but here’s a machine that can separate into two parts, allowing for a lot of fresh and very cool ways to see Elastigirl do her best to catch up with the train and work out how to stop it. It’s a thrilling and incredibly animated sequence.
5. Hereditary – One Bad Car Accident
Easily the most shocking moment in the film. Thanks to understanding certain things about some of the characters and the careful staging by director Ari Aster, the desperate need to get a character somewhere has horrific results. And that’s not even the end of things. There’s a follow-up scene that shows just how grisly things were that will no doubt leave an impact on those already sucked into the world of this horror feature.
4. Annihilation – Mimicry Is A Deadly Form of Flattery
The climax of Annihilation finds the film entering surreal territory, as only so many characters are left, and answers are seemingly going to present themselves, as Natalie Portman’s Lena heads deeper into the lighthouse. Things don’t go in a predictable direction, as something reveals itself and enters into a sort of dance with Lena. The music by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow kicks into overdrive at this point, allowing for a stunning sequence that balances the oddness with total immersion.
3. Avengers: Infinity War – Thor Reflects With Rocket
“You know, I’m 1500 years old. I’ve killed twice as many enemies as that. And every one of them would have rather killed me than not succeeded. I’m only alive because fate wants me alive. Thanos is just the latest of a long line of bastards, and he’ll be the latest to feel my vengeance – fate wills it so.” – Chris Hemsworth finds himself a wonderful scene to further push him up the charts as the current “Best Chris.” A scene of reflection, while in conversation with Rocket Raccoon, of all characters, is the perfect opportunity to display real emotion, in addition to the natural humor and charisma he already brings to these movies.
2. Paddington 2 – Paddington Meets Nuckel’s
I could put together a whole list of wonderful moments from Paddington 2, and yet all I want to do is highlight the quick sight gag involving Brendan Gleeson’s character. As the prison cook with a temper, Knuckles is not someone to mess with, yet Paddington gets inside his head. Before the two truly bond, however, we get the hilarious shot of Knuckles revealing his name tattooed on his fingers, spelled N-U-C-K-E-L-‘-S.
1. Black Panther – Wakanda Forever
“Wakanda Forever,” is a battle cry heard in both Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War that means so much more than “let the third act CG battle begin.” In an age where “Why so serious?” and “May the force be with you,” have been twisted into a call for certain standards imposed by a group not used to attention spreading out of a specific demographic, we’re also in a time when one of the biggest films of the year is cause for a special kind of celebration. Hearing a fierce character stand up for her near-utopian African nation and have the audience roar with cheers back at the screen creates a special sort of feeling when it comes to witnessing what good pop culture can supply when the right steps are taken.