Damn, 2018, huh? This year seems to have flown by while also dragging on forever for what feels like an eternity of torment. The heat of summer blockbuster season will soon give way to the autumnal chill of Oscar-bait dramas. But before it does, let’s look back on some of the best films of 2018 so far.
These aren’t blockbusters, and they’re probably a little too bleak, or too raw, or too unbridled to be Oscar nominees. But, any self-respecting film fan should not let the final months of 2018 pass them by without seeing these vital works
The madness of the world around us at its current moment makes the collective filmgoing experience so valuable. It gives us all the chance to gather together in a shared experience. Films let us escape reality to indulge in fantasy. FIRST REFORMED, however, does the opposite.
Written and directed by cinematic legend Paul Schrader, FIRST REFORMED is a staring contest with the ugliest parts of modern American society. Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a reverend at a small, historic church in upstate New York. The church itself is a relic. It’s become more museum piece than a place of worship, living in the shadow of its sister megachurch.
What this aging church represents depends on how you look at it. Perhaps it’s The American middle class forced out by greedy corporate interests. Or maybe it’s the style of film that Schrader built his career out of being strangled by multi-million dollar blockbusters. Could it be a symbol of the last vestiges of a simpler world free of pollution and man-made destruction that haunts Toller so much?
Many critics have observed that FIRST REFORMED is the TAXI DRIVER, also written by Schrader, for our times and they’re right. The fact that our modern Travis Bickle is not an unstable killer, but a gentle man of God speaks volumes. Kindness has become a radical act, no matter what beliefs you hold. FIRST REFORMED is one final desperate plea for love over anger. And one that recognizes it may be shouting into the void.
Are we nothing more than the product of our DNA? Is it every human’s fate to repeat the mistakes of our parents and pass those same flaws onto our children? This be the verse in director Ari Aster’s first film Hereditary. Aster uses the very real struggles of parenthood and mental illness and forges them into one of the most effective horror films in years.
Annie Graham (Toni Collette) is barely keeping it together after the death of her mother. She’s trying to be the best mother that she can be, but it’s clear that her unresolved issues are keeping her family at an arm’s distance. It seems like her family is cursed. What Graham doesn’t realize is, she’s exactly right. To say may would be to spoil the truly gut-wrenching shocks hidden in the film. Hereditary does more than scare; it burrows itself into your mind and lurks there for days after.
Lynn Ramsey’s latest film is less of a cinematic experience and more of a shared, haunting dream. The film’s protagonist Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is similar to the heroes of the previous two films. Like them, he is a product of our modern anxieties. Joe is a man of violence, trying to bestow some sense of justice on an increasingly unjust world.
When Joe is hired to rescue the kidnapped daughter of a senator, he finds himself trapped in a tangled web of deceit and moral decay. Ramsey draws us into Joe’s perspective through her skilled handle of expository imagery. We never get any heartbreaking revelations from Joe himself, but the snippets of his life before this moment that Ramsey doles out tells us all we need to know.
You Were Never Really Here is a blistering reminder that Ramsey is one of the best filmmakers working today.
Let’s talk about existential horror of a different sort. Bo Burnham’s stand-up comedy has always been focused on the artifice of performance. In many of Burnham’s early stand-up specials he didn’t necessarily present his “true” self, but rather the “character” of Bo Burnham.
I bring all this up to say that Eighth Grade is more than an incredible directorial debut, but also an opportunity to see the evolution of an artist in real time. Burnham turns the focus from the outward “confidence” that we’re all expected to have in our perpetually documented society. Instead, he focuses on what the weight of all that artifice has on adolescence.
It’s the time in our lives where we feel the most uncomfortable, the most awkward, and the most insecure. The constant mantra of “just be yourself” is impossible to conceive when you haven’t quite figured out who “yourself” is supposed to be. Burnham perfectly captures the vulnerability of this time period with a balance of humor and heart.
Boots Riley’s first, of hopefully many, film is art as much as it is a political statement. But Sorry to Bother You is more than a rousing political manifesto. It’s also one of the most gonzo, creative films I’ve seen in years. I believe it does Riley’s unique creative vision a disservice to compare his film to anyone else’s.
In fact, the film’s central conceit of a black man being forced to put on Caucasian airs to fit into an elite society rejects any comparison to white voices in cinema. Boots Riley’s voice is Boots Riley’s voice. In this singular creative vision, Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), stumbles upon the power of the “white voice,” which allows him to rocket up the corporate ladder at his crummy telemarketing job.
Meanwhile, his former colleagues attempt to organize and unionize against the oppressive practices of their bosses. Cassius must decide where he stands as the battle for his soul plays out before his eyes. Riley wrote this film years ago, but its message has never been more important. It’s easy to stay out of the fight for equality, but we all have skin in the game because the people at the top will replace us with something cheaper a heartbeat if they could.
Sometimes you see a film that you realize will never be appreciated in its time. I felt that way seeing Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. I’m certain there were audiences that felt that way after witnessing Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time. That’s exactly how I felt after walking out of the surreal Annihilation.
Alex Garland’s latest sci-fi masterpiece was unceremoniously dumped onto Netflix worldwide. The film only played in theaters in the U.S. In a way, I’m envious of those folks who could watch the film over and over from the comfort of their homes since February. However, I’ll never forget the experience of seeing the insane imagery of Area X play out before me late at night in a theater.
With Annihilation, Garland proves he is one of the strongest voices in modern sci-fi. In the film, Lena (Natalie Portman) must discover what happened to her ailing husband in the mysterious space known only as Area X aka The Shimmer. In the alien created Shimmer, the laws of nature begin to breakdown and coalesce. Garland to creates an unsettling dreamscape of uncanny imagery.
The audience will certain recognize what certain plants or animals are intended to be, but will be baffled by what they have become. Underneath all of this sci-fi weirdness is a moving story about a woman trying to cope with her own demons. The search for meaning is both metaphorical and literal here. Culminating in one of the most audacious sequences you are likely to find in a film this year.
It’s obvious for me to say that BlacKkKlansman is about race in America. What’s Less obvious from the trailers is that the film is also about the role that media, specifically films, plays in our conversation of race in America.
This ranges from distributing portrayal of “noble” Confederates in films like Birth of a Nation or Gone with the Wind to the more subtle portrayals of race in pulp serials like Tarzan. Blackkklansman is Spike Lee’s narrative essay on the importance of representation and how the lack of it will only reinforce harmful stereotypes that have lingered in the minds of Americans for generations.
It’s also a reminder of just what’s at stake in our current battle for America’s soul. At one point, black cop Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) asks his Jewish partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) why he isn’t angrier about these Klansman. He reminds him that they hate him just as much as they hate black people.
“Why’re you acting like you ain’t got skin in the game?” he asks.
Lee’s final, haunting images are a deafening wake-up call to white America. Your whiteness will not protect you from this type of hate.