We’re officially halfway through the year, with 2018 seeing something of a resurgence in quality filmmaking. The last couple of years had a few bright spots here and there (Get Out, The Grand Budapest Hotel, etc.), but for the most part, the films in the first half of the year have been largely forgettable. Thankfully, 2018 has not suffered the same fate so far, with eminently watchable movies every month thus far (even January).
So before we get completely overwhelmed with summer blockbusters and the eventual deluge of prestige fare in the fall, I thought it might be nice to do what every other entertainment website and blog does at this point, and do a mid-year retrospective. Here I’ll list my Top 10 films thus far (as well as a Bottom 5 just so I can shit on things), and then for fun, we’ll have our own mid-year awards ceremony, which I will dub The Oscs (’cause it’s half an Oscar, you see; aren’t I clever?), to recognize some of the superlative elements and performances at the midway point of 2018.
Before I begin, fair warning that I will be discussing plot spoilers here and there. I’ll do my best to avoid too much detail in case you haven’t seen these films yet, but bear in mind that if you want to see something mentioned below, skip the paragraphs if you don’t want any twists revealed to you.
First, let’s get the bad news out of the way. Here are the five WORST films of the year so far:
I really wanted to love this film, as the book was one of my favorites as a kid, but this was just an absolute misfire. Meg is whiny, Charles Wallace is a jerk, Calvin is just there. Every scene that could feel emotionally resonant is punctuated by a horrible pop song. The special effects seemed like lazy 3D justification in all but a few brief moments. The Mrs. Ws were completely mishandled (I mean, when Mindy Kaling is quoting Chris Tucker as a master of Earthly language and philosophy – even when done as a joke – you know you’ve got a problem). Some of the effects are okay, and Zach Galifianakis as a gender-flipped Happy Medium worked, but apart from that, this just felt flat and phoned in the whole time. There were more costume changes than actual plot beats, which I’m sure will get it a Costume Design nomination next year just because, but still, this was the rare Disney flop and the first mulligan of Ava DuVernay’s career.
Another film that I wanted to love based on the trailers and the premise, and Ari Aster’s short films show he has the chops to become a brilliant director. In fact, there are some pretty amazingly fucked up moments in this film, coupled with some good performances. The problem was the overall story, which had no logic and clutched at straws to be relevant and make sense from moment to moment. In an odd way it almost works if you take each individual act as its own short film, which has been Aster’s sole medium to this point (this being his first feature). For example, we learn early on that Toni Collette’s dead mother wanted to “claim” daughter Charlie. Charlie even sees visions of her dead grandma as she engages in her “toymaking.” Then Charlie dies in horrific fashion. Taken as a short film, you could complete that story by visually presenting the idea that grandma was always going to get Charlie for her own. But as the first act of a three-act supernatural horror story? None of that makes any sense, and it just feels like a dangling, unresolved plot thread played more for shock value than anything else. Aster showed tremendous potential with this film, but he needs to work on his story skills, or work with a more competent screenwriter with his next film.
A romantic comedy starring Amy Schumer about a woman who owns her sex appeal despite not having a “Hollywood Starlet” body type? Especially after the brilliance that was Trainwreck? What could go wrong? Sadly, just about everything. Instead of being empowering, Schumer’s character only has confidence thanks to a Rookie of the Year-style absurd injury, causing her to delude herself into believing she looks like a model, and thus has societal value. Apart from that, the film isn’t really funny, despite great comic actors, because the jokes are terrible. The movie also basically functions as a 90-minute commercial for Target and SoulCycle, which… why? The entire exercise in futility is only saved by Michelle Williams departing from her usual typecast of an aggrieved mother to be an absolutely hilarious vapid stick figure desperate for her mother’s approval. Other than that, this film was a complete dud.
What could have been an interesting exploration into spiritualism and fears of ghosts – particularly one set in the real-life labyrinth of the Winchester Mystery House – instead devolves quickly into cheesy hokum and horrible jump scares (I counted 19) rather than trying to craft a genuinely creepy story. The fact that one of the greatest actresses of all time, Helen Mirren, has to try to lend some credibility to this dreck about gun violence victims becoming angry ghosts that have to be shot again to exorcise them is just sad.
The title pretty much says it all. If you’re wondering just how far a beloved franchise can fall, look no further than this utterly nonsensical failure of a popcorn flick. Literally every plot decision is the wrong one, a legitimately intriguing closed area escape just turns into self-parody, and a Trump caricature gets chomped. It’s all just so terrible, and that’s not even bringing in the human clones and the crying raptors. This is a franchise that has enchanted and entertained for 25 years, and there’s yet another sequel in the works, but if you’ll forgive a tired line, it’s time the dinosaurs went extinct.
Okay, now that the unpleasantness is out of the way, let’s move on to the good stuff. Here are my Top 10 Best Movies of the year so far!
10. Deadpool 2
It’s always hard to follow up a breakout hit with an equally compelling sequel, but Ryan Reynolds and company were well up to the task. The sequel to the funniest movie of 2016 is just as crass as its predecessor, with even more ways to fuck with the meta elements of the superhero genre, including crossing properties and timelines, undoing the critical events of the entire film, and just generally flipping off every expectation you had going in. Amidst all the laughs you actually ended up with a more cohesive story than the original (which was half backstory), a surprisingly organic bit of minority inclusion (way more believable than the shoehorning in A Wrinkle in Time), and in what may be the greatest achievement of all, relegating the requisite Stan Lee cameo to a mural. Thank you, Jeebus!
It’s become something of a trope to have movies about motherhood focus more on the kids than anything else. It sort of makes sense. By the very definition, a mother’s life is focused through the lens of the tiny humans that make her a mother in the first place. But Tully, another great collaboration between Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman, instead keeps the attention solely on the mother herself, and how everything filters through her. Charlize Theron gives an outstanding lead performance, dealing with her aging through the avatar of the title “night nanny.” The twists and turns of the plot are handled exceptionally well, and the film always makes sure to keep things grounded in a humorously-touched reality, even as some of the elements go in surprisingly poignant and fanciful directions, like a “Ladies Home Journal” version of Fight Club. The film is wonderfully imaginative and superbly acted, and a much better testament to body positivity than I Feel Pretty could have ever hoped to achieve.
This masterpiece almost won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year before it was even finished. That should tell you pretty much all you need to know about how good it is. Joaquin Phoenix gives what may be the best performance of his career as a hitman going through the oddest of existential crises while trying to rescue a young girl from a sex trafficking ring. What really sells the experience is the sound design. Phoenix is constantly bombarded by a cacophony of noises, aided by Johnny Greenwood’s score, which just pounds him incessantly, so that we in the audience constantly know his torment. Amazingly short and devastating, it’s easy to see why this film was so beloved even in an unfinished state, and it more than lived up to the year of anticipation before its release.
Before I began my quest to see the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe in anticipation of Avengers: Infinity War, this was only the fourth film I had seen in the MCU (the others being the two Guardians films and Doctor Strange). I loved it for the same reason I loved the others, because it was essentially a stand-alone film. Yes, there are references to Civil War at the beginning and end, as well as the return (and end) of Andy Serkis from Age of Ultron, but even with those elements, the film went out of its way to be one you could enjoy free of MCU context. And boy did I. This film gave us a compelling story, the best overall villain of the MCU in Michael B. Jordan (before sadly killing him off), and one of the most engaging, almost interactive superhero movie experiences possible. More importantly, the film created its own thematic subtext to speak to the MCU audience in mature terms, knowing the audience had grown with the films over the last decade. Some of the special effects were a bit lacking (the armored rhinos were downright laughable), but that’s a small gripe in what is so far the best blockbuster film of the year.
There have been a good deal of decent documentaries so far this year, both in theatres and on the small screen. One of the best is Filmworker, about the life of Stanley Kubrick’s right hand man, Leon Vitali, who left a promising acting career (where he looked like a blonde Mick Jagger) for the thankless role of being the man behind the method for one of the greatest directors of all time. Even now, two decades after Kubrick’s death, Vitali is still manically dedicated to preserving and perfecting the work (now looking like Keith Richards), with endless notes, tons of stories, and hundreds of hours of low-to-no-pay work restoring the films. The title is a deliberate one Vitali gives to himself. Kubrick was the “filmmaker,” the creative genius behind the vision of some of the greatest films ever made, while Vitali was the “filmworker,” the one who made sure the vision could be executed. He went from starring in Barry Lyndon to being the force responsible for Danny Lloyd’s performance in The Shining, to getting the late, great R. Lee Ermey cast in Full Metal Jacket, to literally playing no less than eight masked orgy participants in Eyes Wide Shut WHILE ALSO ADJUSTING THE LIGHTING BETWEEN SHOTS! Vitali learned the trade, and he executed it on the fly. There’s the old saying, “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Vitali is living proof.
Who knew the power struggle after the death of a dictator could be so funny? The gallows humor is on full display in this totalitarian farce from the creators of Veep. Dispensing with anything but a passing acknowledgment of actual fact, Armando Iannucci gives his actors (Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, and Michael Palin, among others) basically free reign for madcap hilarity, having them perform in their own natural accents and mannerisms. The absurdity is cranked up to 11 from the very beginning, where a radio programmer scrambles to reassemble an audience to record a live concert, to the in-progress reversal of prisoner executions, including the cavalier execution of the executioner himself at the end of the scene. There’s some heavy history, and you know you’re laughing at atrocities, but especially in our current geopolitical climate, it’s beyond cathartic to even be able to laugh at such things.
Speaking of our current climate, this may be the most essential documentary of the year. Who knows what its fate will be come Awards Season – as popular docs tend to get left by the wayside, with March of the Penguins and An Inconvenient Truth being notable exceptions – but in the here and now, with our country beset by cruel, indecent leadership, it is a much needed respite to remember that there are still good people out there, and that we as a society need to make that extra effort to seek out kindness in the world. Fred Rogers was a pure force for good, helping children to see the world and express themselves in ways no one had done before, and some 15 years after his death, his absence is still deeply felt. This film is an unapologetic tearjerker (I lost it when Daniel made his first appearance), but it has a purpose, and it gives us a unique insight into the troubled child that Rogers himself was, which informed his empathetic approach to the children of America.
Sebastián Lelio followed up his Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman with his English-language debut, one of the most beautiful love stories ever put to film. This is mostly because each of the characters in this Orthodox Jewish love triangle – Ronit, Esti, and Dovid – are all given proper agency, and there are no “bad guys” in the equation. Rachel McAdams gives the best performance of her career in a genuinely touching role, torn between her religious obligations and her love for Rachel Weisz. Aided by a brilliant score, the movie has an intimacy not often seen in cinema, especially when set against the backdrop of Orthodox Judaism.
This generation’s version of Heathers is a dark comedy for the ages, and a proper sendoff for a talented actor gone far too soon. Two deeply disturbed childhood friends go from a forced/paid social interaction thinly disguised as SAT prep into a wonderfully sardonic plot to murder a dickish stepfather. The dialogue is crisp, the story details expertly executed. The late Anton Yelchin gives his final performance as a dimwitted drug dealer/assassin who gets roped into the plan without even getting the chance to misjudge the situation. It’s a small film, but an exercise in brilliance on the grandest scale!
1. Isle of Dogs
Another film where the title says it all, a lovely homophone to all us canine enthusiasts out there. Wes Anderson’s second stop-motion feature (after the acclaimed Fantastic Mr. Fox) is artistic filmmaking at its best. A simple story of a boy trying to find his lost dog is fleshed out into an utterly fantastical adventure. Set in near-future Japan, a cat-worshiping authoritarian mayor cooks up a fake disease to justify relocating all dogs in the city to Trash Island, including Spots, the companion/protector of his nephew, Atari. The boy hijacks a small plane and travels to the island to find Spots, where he encounters a group of dogs led by the stray, Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston, leading Anderson’s usual stable of indie all-stars). The scenery and set pieces are glorious works of art, from a hill lined with orange goo that looks like a volcano, to a factory that could double as an amusement park ride. The film also makes the risky, but amazing choice to leave dialogue in native tongues (with the dogs speaking English), only translating (via Frances McDormand) in those rare instances where the visual context of whatever Japanese is being said doesn’t fully come across to the viewer. The stop-motion is near-perfect, the story complex and sweet, and the visuals a marvel. I know it won’t win Best Picture next year. It probably won’t even get nominated. But so far, this is the best 2018 has to offer.
Now it’s time for the main event, The Oscs! For the purposes of this exercise, I’ve had to eliminate some of the Academy categories (like the short films, as I’ve only seen one so far this year) and condense others (not going to bother with the distinction between Sound Editing and Sound Mixing, we’ll just do Sound overall). For each category, I’ll pick what I think should win a given award based on what I’ve seen so far, as well as an Honorable Mention for another worthy entry. Obviously, we can dispense with Best Picture, as my pick and the alternates were just stated above, so let’s move on to the others.
Best Director: Lynne Ramsay – You Were Never Really Here – For such a fast-paced film, it’s amazing how much Ramsay crams into her frame. No single shot is tossed off as procedural, and there are a ton of not-so-obvious visual delights to be had as Joaquin Phoenix goes about his rampage. There’s a tightness to everything that helps to further drive home Phoenix’s isolation and paranoia with his situation, and aids the overall experience. Further, with such a small cast, it’s amazing the performances she was able to draw from them.
Honorable Mention: Even though it’s an animated film, Wes Anderson’s trademark touches are all over Isle of Dogs, and the end result is a product only he could craft.
Best Actor: Joaquin Phoenix – You Were Never Really Here – It’s rare that we as an audience can root so clearly for someone who casually buys hammers and duct tape at a hardware store knowing he’s going to use them to harm/kill someone. It’s even harder to root for that person as the hero of the story. It’s even still harder for such a plot device not to be used in service of comedy. But that’s the sort of performance Phoenix gives in this film. We’re on board with him every step of the way, from the gregarious to the gruesome, knowing that he’s almost certainly destined for tragedy, and knowing even further that we’d never want to encounter him in a dark alley.
Honorable Mention: Ethan Hawke gives arguably the finest performance of his career in First Reformed as a troubled minister dealing with conflicts of faith and of real-world consciousness and corruption. He sells every scene and carries every burden, first figuratively, then literally.
Best Actress: Rachel McAdams – Disobedience – In my initial review, I noted that McAdams might receive a Supporting Actress nomination next year, but as the film’s grown on me for the last few months, something has kept crawling back into my mind. After I first saw the film, there was a Q&A with director Sebastián Lelio, where he emphasized his desire for McAdams and Rachel Weisz to be two halves of the same person, the top and bottom of the Queen of Hearts. As such, I now consider McAdams and Weisz as co-leads, and of the two, McAdams’ performance wowed me the most. Her melancholy, desire, and pure ability to love is matched only by the subdued beauty of her physical vulnerability in the film.
Honorable Mention: Even though the end product was nonsensical and frustrating, a hefty amount of credit must be given to Toni Collette for carrying the bonkers narrative of Hereditary. She was handed some pretty outlandish and grotesque material, and she played it to the hilt.
Best Supporting Actor: Steve Buscemi – The Death of Stalin – With his unique voice and sarcastic wit, Buscemi makes for the funniest version of Nikita Khrushchev ever seen. His plotting, manipulation, and weaselly humor would be enough by itself, but the added bonus of having it delivered by Mr. Pink trying to maneuver through a Russian version of Reservoir Dogs is a mildly derivative, but entirely hilarious display.
Honorable Mention: While the movie was good with some off moments, it is Donald Glover’s performance that carries the middle third of Solo: A Star Wars Story. Childish Gambino definitely did his homework, giving a performance worthy of Billy Dee Williams in his prime, while adding his own unique charisma.
Best Supporting Actress: Olivia Cooke – Thoroughbreds – While she probably got more exposure as the love interest in Ready Player One, it is Cooke’s performance as half the main duo in Thoroughbreds that should make her a star. As the self-described sociopath Amanda, Cooke displays a surprising range of emotions while noting that she’s been faking them her entire life. Her troubled backstory is actually the most human (and humane) thing about her, and she instigates the film’s murder plot with deadpan aplomb, even applauding her accomplice after being forced to take the fall. It’s an absolutely brilliant performance from beginning to end, as she goes from always being one step ahead to being caught off guard at the crucial moment.
Honorable Mention: While I’m not one to endorse the Hollywood paradigm of beauty, there’s a deliberateness to the youthful sexuality of Mackenzie Davis as the titular Tully, breathing life into Charlize Theron’s world, while also serving as the poignant reminder of what’s left behind as middle age and parenthood takes precedence in one’s life.
Animated Feature: Isle of Dogs – I mean, duh. What else do you want me to say?
Honorable Mention: In a year that’s seen some pretty great animated films at the midway point (a far cry from what we got stuck with in the category last year), Incredibles 2 is the best of the rest, a worthy sequel to Brad Bird’s masterpiece, and well worth the wait.
Original Screenplay: Wes Anderson – Isle of Dogs – Again, duh. The story is so heartfelt and sweet, with a panoply of compelling characters both two- and four-legged. The dialogue employs the best of Anderson’s style with little-to-no pretension, and that is saying something.
Honorable Mention: Given that there are essentially only five characters in the film, Cory Finley gets the absolute most out of everyone in Thoroughbreds.
Adapted Screenplay: Armando Iannucci, David Scheider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellow – The Death of Stalin – Adapted from a graphic novel, the script for this wonderful farce is one gut-busting laugh after another, as powerful men run around like headless chickens when a power vacuum is formed around them. Absurdity, contradictions, pratfalls, and even whispers that aren’t whispers are bandied about with masterful skill and wit. Imagine if Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks got handed the reigns of power in a dictatorship. That’s the absurdist bureaucracy we get, coupled with some gallows humor that’s so rich and dark it might as well be chocolate.
Honorable Mention: Adapted from a work of the same name by Jonathan Ames, Lynne Ramsay won the Best Screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival to go along with Joaquin Phoenix winning Best Actor for You Were Never Really Here.
Documentary: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – Not much else to say for this, and for the alternate, though I’ll give you a bit of a teaser for a future review. There’s a new documentary out right now that could compete with both of them.
Honorable Mention: Filmworker
Sound: A Quiet Place – Along with the alternate in this category, there have been two masterful films so far this year that arguably boil down largely to the sound design. Of the two, A Quiet Place is a step ahead, due to the philosophy of less is more. It is truly a rare work that can be so meticulously quiet that even the audience takes extra care to sit down and shut up. Candy wrappers were opened as gingerly as possible throughout the theatre. That’s how good of an atmosphere the lack of sound set up for this movie.
Honorable Mention: As I’ve said, You Were Never Really Here does absolute wonders to bombard the viewer with noise to give us a true sense of Joaquin Phoenix’s personal Hell.
Visual Effects: Ready Player One – There are times when the CGI effects threaten to bog down the proceedings and turn the Oasis into a giant cartoon, but there are some undeniably brilliant set pieces, particularly with the King Kong race. Most important for me was the incorporation of the Overlook Hotel from The Shining, a combination of immaculate set design and CG integration.
Honorable Mention: If you ignore the giant space kraken, the visuals in Solo: A Star Wars Story are borderline breathtaking.
Costume Design: Black Panther – As I said earlier, the crass cynic in me thinks that A Wrinkle in Time knew it was going to be a bad product, so they just threw as many wacky costumes at the screen as possible, including between scenes, in hopes of scooping this award, but hopefully they’ll be shit out of luck, because Black Panther had some of the best designs I’ve ever seen. The category typically goes for period pieces, but the African designs of the Wakandan people were something truly awe-inspiring, not to mention the actual catsuit that T’Challa gets himself into over the course of the film.
Honorable Mention: It’s more subdued, because Orthodoxy demands it, but the outfits in Disobedience were truly interesting, standing out despite the intent to blend in. As I mentioned in my original review, when Esti takes off her modest wig, it’s a transformative moment for the character on multiple levels.
Makeup: American Animals – I haven’t seen much in the way of great makeup or makeup effects so far this year, but this nice documentary/heist film blend hangs one of its major moments on makeup, and that’s what gets the nod here. On the first attempt to rob the library, the four hapless young thieves dress up as old men, aided by makeup and prosthetics designed by the main character. We even get the trope of the heist film slow walk as the four college-aged protagonists approach the library dressed as septuagenarians. Spencer Reinhard helped to orchestrate the heist as an expression of living art, and the makeup job he executes on himself and his cohorts is a hint at the wasted potential of a talented art student once the consequences of their actions come to bear.
Honorable Mention: I brought this up in my initial review, but there are two fairly stellar makeup moments in First Reformed. The first is when Reverend Toller discovers Michael’s body, a gigantic hole blown out in the back of his head from the shotgun suicide. The second is towards the end, when he drops his own vestments and wraps himself in barbed wire, taking a full body of thorns rather than a crown. The bloody piercings all over his torso a brilliant bit of prosthetic work. It’ll largely be ignored next year, but they’re definitely worth seeing.
Cinematography: Hereditary – Again, the film is overall very bad, thanks to a terrible story and a complete and utter lack of logic. But as I said, Ari Aster has a brilliant cinematic eye, and one of the few bright spots in the film is the overall camera work. From the opening shot, which slowly zooms in on a dollhouse room until it becomes one of the literal bedrooms of the house, to the expertly framed shock moments of severed heads, the lens is almost always perfectly placed. I just wish it was in service of a good script.
Honorable Mention: One of the major creative decisions of First Reformed was to film the movie in a 4:3 aspect ratio. That tells the audience right from the off that Reverend Toller is boxed in, a prisoner in his own space. It may look elementary when seen in a theatre, but it’s a great touch.
Production Design: Black Panther – I mean, what more can you say? From the costuming, to the sets, to the visual effects (sans Rhino), to the absolute jaw-dropping array of tech in the lab, the film creates a rich, fully realized universe hidden from public view. But even outside of that, the urban areas of Oakland and the project lifestyle that Michael B. Jordan’s character grows up in are really well detailed. And don’t even get me started on the Wakanda spirit world.
Honorable Mention: While the focus is on the farce, the set designs in The Death of Stalin are immaculate, particularly at Stalin’s funeral.
Original Score: Matthew Herbert – Disobedience – I might not have rated this so high if I hadn’t heard it straight from the horse’s mouth. In the post-screening Q&A, Herbert noted how it was his intent to keep the score dangling, teasing the audience almost to the point of eroticism, and only resolving the themes at the true moments of catharsis: the sex scene between Ronit and Esti, and the eventual reconciliation and release for both of them as well as Dovid. I played the score back in my head multiple times after learning this tidbit, and all it does is make me love the film more.
Honorable Mention: Johnny Greenwood was nominated last year for Phantom Thread, and he’d be most worthy of another nomination for You Were Never Really Here, creating a chaotic score to aid the rest of the noise digging at Joaquin Phoenix throughout the proceedings.
Original Song: “Hearts Beat Loud” – Hearts Beat Loud – It may seem trite to pick the title song of a quasi-musical movie, but it’s memorable and sweet, and one of the best sequences of the entire film is watching Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons “write” and record it. It’s the best song in the entire film, and since we’re mostly supposed to consider song entries within the context of the film, it’s got the best one so far, a true bonding moment and the inciting incident of the film. It’s no Falling Slowly, but really, what is?
Honorable Mention: The entire Black Panther soundtrack is kickass, thanks in large part to Kendrick Lamar, but his collaboration with The Weeknd on “Pray For Me” is the best of the bunch.
Editing: Black Panther – For the car chase scene alone this film would be the best edited, but then you also get the casino sequence, the waterfall fights, and the ultimate showdown at the end. Unlike many other films in the MCU, you actually know where people are and what they’re doing during these major action sequences, and that’s a huge credit to the editing team.
Honorable Mention: It’s a two-fer for the comic book movies, as Deadpool 2 literally does the impossible and undoes an entire movie by the time it’s all said and done, and we didn’t feel the least bit cheated because of it.
Well, that does it for this lengthy retrospective. Normal coverage will resume this week, as I’ve got two great films in the chamber to be reviewed. Here’s hoping the next six months are as good, or better, as the last six. Also, let’s hope that nothing sucks as bad as what we’ve seen so far.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What’s your favorite film so far this year? Which one did I like but you hated (or vice-versa)? Can we give an acting Oscar to a dog? Let me know!