2018’s first half, top 10, film solstice extravaganza
The sun didn’t go down till nearly 10pm last night, signaling, albeit one week early, the time to reflect on the first half of 2018’s film output. I say “output” because I view everything as a cold and calculating cash grab designed to rip hard earned dollars from unwitting denizens in exchange for, of all things, a couple hours of “mirth.” What a cynical, greedy industry.
I was actually surprised that by June I was able to easily compile a top 10 list. We’ve barely started with the summer tent poles and the fall Oscar baits are still only a terrible terrible trailer on some corporate Youtube channel. But I digress.
That’s right. I had so many films I’ve loved this year, that a few that warranted mention even though they haven’t cracked the top. And they say I never do anything for the little film… (well, “they” never say much at all… I’m actually not sure there is a “they”… please read my stuff!)
Alex Garland is near and dear to my heart, especially after the astounding Ex Machina. I went into Annihilation wanting more, and while the last two thirds of the film get progressively better, the opening half hour found me slack-jawed, drooling in boredom. Garland’s film based on the dream he once had about the Nebula award winning novel is still worth checking out, but isn’t quite cohesive enough for my, or most people’s, perfectly discerning palate.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower
The first production by Japanese Studio Ponoc, founded by Ghibli alum Yoshiaki Nishimura, attempts to assert itself as the spiritual successor to the on-again off-again god of anime Hayao Miyazaki. The film, based on a 1970’s British children’s novel, is adequate, but doesn’t quite rise to the brilliance of Ghibli’s best work. Still, it definitely maintains the promise that even in a post-Ghibli era, there are animators willing, and likely capable, of bearing the torch.
Ready Player One… specifically the Shining scene
Yeah, yeah, yeah, ok. I know there’s a lot of feelings about Ready Player One, its role in the age of toxic fandom and as harbinger of movements like GamerGate and the eventual rise of the alt-right. I share those feelings. But that moment when CGI characters step into a gobsmackingly perfect recreation of the Overlook Hotel from The Shining… I liked that. I liked that a lot. The rest of film is fine but flawed, yada yada yada Spielberg.
For the most part, I think Black Panther is just a pretty fine Marvel movie. But when it’s not lost in CGI super battles, it’s something remarkably new. The afrofuturism on display is just… cool. It’s something I thought I would only ever see on the pages of a comic book, and now the whole world gets to see it, and enjoy it, and celebrate it. Films like this can be gateways to projects studios would have never thought viable, and it’s rad to see it continue to be the #1 grossing film in the US. The Miles Morales Spider-Man is happening. The Kamala Khan Ms. Marvel movie is happening. Things are changing and I couldn’t be happier.
I loved the first Incredibles. Everyone loves the first Incredibles. What wasn’t to love? It was basically the best Fantastic Four movie ever made. So why did it take 14 years for Brad Bird to lose all ambition and acquiesce to making another one? That’s actually a good question. Someone let me know the answer when they ask him. I’m too busy enjoying Incredibles 2.
The Top 10… so far
Presented in reverse, highly scientific order, from most 10 to most 1.
10. The Death of Stalin
The first and only SIFF gala I’ve ever attended was for the premiere of Armando Iannucci’s film In the Loop. Still one of my all time favorites, he has since continued to challenge and entertain me with shows like The Thick of It and the multi-Emmy award winning Veep. When I heard he was working on a black comedy about the transition of power around the death of Soviet Premier, and historical monster Joseph Stalin, my interest was more than piqued. What resulted was his blackest, and I mean blackest, comedy yet, that still managed to perfectly lampoon the absurdity and horror of authoritarian power and politics. Iannucci is perhaps the greatest voice in political satire of our generation, and his latest work is easily his most mature and riveting. I can’t wait for his inevitable Trump piece, assuming he hasn’t viewed the reality of our world and decided to retire in defeat.
9. First Reformed
Paul Schrader is known for his screenwriting prowess more than his directorial acumen. He has penned such seminal works as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and performed screenplay duty on epics like The Last Temptation of Christ and Affliction. His directorial work has been less impressive, but the gripping, ice cold, sumptuous film First Reformed is one of the best things I’ve seen this year. It features a spellbinding performance by Ethan Hawke as a pastor struggling with multiple afflictions, including a crisis of faith from his corporate funded, politically aligned megachurch overseers. Cedric the Entertainer and Amanda Seyfried round out this devastating tone poem on depression, shot in gorgeous 4:3 academy format. Yeah that’s right, square formats aren’t just for Wes Anderson.
I have a personal bias toward this film in multiple respects. It’s shot in the beautiful backyard of my home state in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a sci-fi western, with strong nods toward works like Firely. It stars a young female lead, which automatically earns my respect and admiration. Plus, there’s not a single vampire. Seriously, the production design alone, a physical, analog, gritty sci-fi blue collar world, is enough to earn this film a place on my top 10. There’s a depth to the story and setting that shows the young crew behind it have been thinking about and developing this universe for a long time. That work pays off in what I hope is only the movie pilot for one of the best Neftlix/Amazon/Hulu series we will ever get.
7. Butterflies (Kelebekler)
I’m a little sad that this is the only non-English language film to make it onto my top 10, but I am American, and it is well known that we hate all people who aren’t American… and also some of those people who are… and also everyone. So when a comedy by a Turkish filmmaker about the reunion of three children after the death of their father showed up on my radar, I did the American thing and immediately assimilated it into my melting pot of cultural ethos. Seriously, if there’s a film that could prove to the most racist American that Muslim culture is just as human and goofy as our own, this is the film to do it. I don’t think a movie has made me laugh more than this, and the next film on my list is also a comedy. The ending of this film is one of the perfect endings of any movie I’ve seen. The perfect punchline to a near perfect comedy. If you are looking for a film to lighten your heart, look no further than Butterflies. It also has exploding chickens. Did I mention that?
6. Game Night
Every year American cinema is rife with films trying to achieve that “R-rated comedy” splendor defined by classics like The Hangover, The 40 Year Old Virgin, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall (it’s just better than Get Him to the Greek, deal with it!). Weirdly, that film dropped in February of this year, and despite almost no one seeing it, it is definitively this year’s top adult comedy. It’s like someone watched David Fincher’s The Game and thought, “You know what would be funny? A funny version of The Game by David Fincher.” I also have to note that Jesse Plemons puts in one of the most hilarious straight man performances of all time. It’s rare that a film is just a delight, but that’s what this movie is. A perfect date night film, a perfect lift-you-out-of-the-dumps film, a perfect “are our parents cool enough to enjoy this?” film.
We are in a renaissance of horror films, from small budget, popcorn thrillers like Paranormal Activity, Insidious, and The Conjuring, to high brow, slowburn indies like The Babadook, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, The Witch, and Get Out. Hereditary takes its cues from the indie slow burners, with the horror of ghosts and ghoulies being outshined by the gut-wrenching trauma of real life grief and familial conflict. Like its indie forbearers, it shrouds the true to life horrors in gimmicky, but fun supernatural trappings, all while blurring the line between metaphorical and fantastical. It’s hard to think of a better horror film where a gruesome decapitation is less horrifying than a previous gruesome decapitation, but if you’ve got the gumption, you simply cannot miss — and it kills me to know this —the first ever feature debut by Ari Aster. Needless to say, or prequel meme, I will watch his career with great interest. Toni Collette for Best Actress!
It’s hard to praise this amazing film by Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody without talking about spoilers, but I’m going to try my hardest. As someone who is not parent, I can only fathom how this story of unrelenting motherhood must play to the many parents who find themselves sleepless, harried, on a last nerve, and yet still responsible for the loving nurturing of one or two or many human lives. And just when times are the hardest, Tully, the film’s namesake, appears like a magic pixie dream fairy to serve as both night nanny and life coach to the worn out mother played by body-morphing chameleon Charlize Theron. I can’t say more other than watching this movie to the end will almost require watching it again from beginning. In my Twitter review I said this movie feels like the female response to a specific genre trope made famous by a very male movie in the late 90s. This movie takes that trope, owns it, and makes the 90s movie as childish and un-ironic as it actually is. Every parent should watch Tully, and so should everyone else.
3. Eighth Grade
It’s rare you get to watch the birth of a star, much less the binary brilliance of comedian-turned-director Bo Burnham and breakout wunderkind Elsie Fisher. Eighth Grade is about, well, being in the eighth grade. Guess what? It sucks. But rather than so many movies that are nostalgia trips to the director’s own grade school days, this film is about what it’s like to be in the eighth grade now, in 2018. Yet in an age defined by YouTube & Instagram, what makes the film soar is just how little has changed, how much still resonates with everyone who has been through that truly awful period in life, and come out the otherside. It’s that sameness in the midst of a vastly different childhood that makes Eighth Grade universal. I was lucky enough to meet both Burnham & Fisher at my screening in Seattle, and an anecdote of Burnham stuck with me: When casting, he saw kid after kid, all confident, trying to act like an awkward teen. Fisher, a confident actor herself, was the only person who could play an awkward person who was trying to act confident. To say Fisher — an actual eighth grader herself — is bloody fantastic is a colossal understatement for film that is 99% just her. What a treat to witness these two, as they are certainly bound for bigger and greater things.
2. Won’t You Be My Neighbor
I tried, rather spectacularly once, to write a review of this documentary about Fred Rogers. A thousand words in, and rambling sentence after rambling sentence, I realized there was nothing I could say that the documentary didn’t already say better. Whether it was about Mr. Rogers being the Christ-like man we all dreamed him to be, whether it was about the radical way he used his show to promote equality and social change, whether it was about the times he felt low and that his message had failed to connect or make an impact, it’s all there and it’s simply wonderful. The film makes the case that he was our ambassador of empathy, and leaves on a pointed question of what are we doing now that he’s gone? For the decades of children who grew up eating breakfast to the Fred Rogers’ soothing voice and jazzy piano, this will easily be the most memorable thing you watch this year. And for a man who spent his years telling children that he liked them just the way they are, this film feels like the thank you he collectively deserved, but never sought, from all us, his neighbors.
1. Avengers Infinity War
Yeah, there are going to be *SPOILERS*. You’ve had your time :). Sorry parents with babies :).
In my initial review of the gigantic Marvel event film, I said that while I didn’t think it was the best movie I had ever seen, it was the best time I ever had seeing a movie. Nearly two months later, I still stand by that 100%. I remain in awe that this film happened. A culmination of 18 films, and a story that was meticulously planned from the start, this is an achievement in filmmaking unlike anything we have ever seen, and I’m starting to feel unlike anything we will ever see again. And it’s not just that the film happened, and it’s not just that the film is good, and it’s not just that the film somehow manages to handle 30+ characters over 3+ hours and still feels cohesive and energetic and like everyone gets a moment to shine; it’s ALL that AND it has one of the most devastating endings any blockbuster has dared to throw at an unwitting audience of superfans. The bad guy wins. The good guys fade from existence and we have to watch each one die like knife after knife shoved into our hearts. They killed freakin’ Spider-Man, man! The experience of sitting in a completely full theater, riding high off the action and comedy, only to witness grown men & women gasp and cry out as their heroes are snuffed from existence… I still get chills. I feel so bad for the people who don’t enjoy these films, but there’s just nothing else like it. I will cherish that experience for rest of my life, which will hopefully be long enough to see Kevin Feige and the ridiculous team at Marvel do it all again.
- Avengers Infinity War
- Won’t You Be My Neighbor
- Eighth Grade
- Game Night
- Butterflies (Kelebelker)
- First Reformed
- The Death of Stalin
Honorable Mentions: Annihilation, Mary and the Witch’s Flower, Ready Player One’s The Shining Sequence, Black Panther, Incredibles 2